Irish Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
RORY McILROY returns to defend his Dubai Duty Free Irish Open title with his world ranking having slipped to fourth. If ever a man was in need of a morale-boosting week it is the Northern Irishman and to add to his woes he is the tournament host, which means he will be in constant demand all week.
The four-time major champion's season has once again been ruined by injury and he played poorly at both The Masters and the US Open, as well as getting involved in an unseemly Twitter spat with Steve Elkington, the former US PGA champion. To be fair, Elkington could start an argument in an empty phone box, but was it really appropriate for McIlroy to inform the Australian that he was worth about $200m?
If we were talking about an ordinary golfer we would be writing off his chances but McIlroy is no ordinary golfer. For sure he has not played enough tournament golf but a final round of 64 at the Travelers Championship indicated that his best golf is not terribly far away. The 28-year-old has won 13 times on the European Tour, and also has a further 22 victories to his credit. Some will say that he should have achieved more, but let's put things in perspective.
Most people regard Nick Faldo as the best golfer Europe has ever produced. In a long career he won six majors. McIlroy has already won four. He has a majestic golf swing and a fabulous temperament. Yes, he can be flakey on the greens, and would be the first to admit that, but he also holes more than his fair share of long putts. McIlroy routinely smashes the ball 320 yards from the tee and is a glorious long-iron player.
Last season was regarded as a poor one by his high standards but he was still good enough to win the FedEx Cup. His problem is that he is now measured by the number of majors he has won, and there is no doubt that his progress has been affected by a succession of injuries. He also had to go through the long and painful process of finding a new club manufacturer when Nike announced last year that they would no longer be producing golf clubs. TaylorMade wasted no time in making him their marquee signing, and paying him handsomely to use their product. When he first switched to Nike he struggled to adjust but this time around he hit thousands of golf balls before committing to a new contract - and that was what caused the rib injury that sidelined him earlier in the year.
He loves playing on home soil and will have massive support from a huge and enthusiastic gallery. The tournament is being played at Portstewart Golf Club for the first time. It was opened in 1894 and is a proper links course, measuring just 7,004 yards and has a par of 72. It hosted the Amateur Championship in 2014. You may expect that a top European Tour field will rip the course to shreds and if the weather is kind over all four days then that may well be the case, but the chances are that the wind will blow, and that means a shotmaker is likely to emerge as the champion.
The tournament is the latest in the Rolex Series, with a bumper prize fund of $7m. It has a rich history and has been won by many of the legends in European golf, including Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie. was won in 2010 by Ross Fisher, by Simon Dyson in 2011, Jamie Donaldson in 2012, Paul Casey in 2013, Miko Illonen in 2014 and Soren Kjeldsen in 2015. And in 2009 Shane Lowry took the title in memorable fashion as an amateur.
Lowry will be back and, like McIlroy, Harrington, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, is sure to have plenty of local support.
Irish fans will also have a chance to see Hideki Matsuyama for the first time, as well as Justin Rose, Jon Rahm, Ian Poulter, Thomas Pieters, Lee Westwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Danny Wiillett, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Chris Wood, Rafa Cabrera Bello and Tommy Fleetwood.
“The Northern Irish fans are renowned the world over for their great support. The last two tournaments here in 2012 and 2015 were both sell-outs and the atmosphere was something else. I expect it to be the same this time with a field of this depth and such a great venue at Portstewart.
There will be much interest in the form of Matsuyama, who finished joint second at the recent US Open and who has replaced McIlroy in second place in the world rankings. He began the season in sensational fashion but his game then went off the boil. He is back in top form now and is clearly using this event as preparation for The Open at Royal Birkdale, where he will start as one of the favourites.
Rahm makes his second European Tour appearance, and it will be fascinating to see how he adapts to links golf, having played so much of his recent golf on the PGA Tour. The Spaniard is a fast learner and surely a future world number one. He hits the ball miles and those who know him best are certain that he will be up to the challenge. While many of today's professionals only seem to be capable of hitting the ball high, Rahm's swing is such that he is well capable of manipulating the ball low into the wind, and he is equally at home shaping the ball left to right or right to left. On top of that, he has a stunning short game. It all adds up to somebody who will fancy his chances of winning another title this week - and do not be surprised if he does precisely that.
Look out, too, for another big week from Tommy Fleetwood, who learnt to play his golf in and around Birkdale, which means he is comfortable playing in the wind. Fleetwood's form this season has been sensational, with two victories and a series of top-10 finishes. He also came close to winning the US Open, which means his confidence is sky-high. He will be relishing the prospect of heading to Birkdale for The Open but if he has a chance to win at Portstewart he will be happy to take it.
To Win: Rory McIlroy. Adores playing in front of his home fans
Each Way: Tommy Fleetwood. Now a world-class golfer
Each Way: Jon Rahm. Irish fans will love this guy
Rory McIlroy. Needs a confidence boost
Tommy Fleetwood. Enjoys links golf
Jon Rahm. Could destroy this course
Shane Lowry. Great memories of this tournament
Hideki Matsuyama. How will he cope with the links?
Thomas Pieters. Awesome ball striker
Lee Westwood. Has a decent record in this event
Tyrrell Hatton. Looking to rediscover his early-season brilliance
Ian Poulter. Needs a big week to qualify for The Open
Graeme McDowell. Looking for some inspiration
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