Irish Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
RORY McILROY returns to home soil for what he hopes will be a triumphant return to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Mount Juliet. And he will do so in front of a limited number of fans. McIlroy will be joined by fellow major champions Shane Lowry, Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell.
McIlroy, of course, hosted the tournament from 2015-18, winning it in spectacular fashion in 2016. And the four-time major champion will be desperate to lift the title again. The 32-year-old recently returned to the winner’s circle for the first time in 18 months on the PGA Tour, winning the Wells Fargo Championship for the third time in his career in May, and was in contention at the US Open until dropping three strokes in two holes on the back nine.
“I am really excited to get back and play the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open,” said McIlroy. “I have so many incredible memories of this event down the years, not least my victory in 2016, and I think it is going to be a pretty special week this July with the fans returning. I’m really excited to play in front of them again.”
Meanwhile, reigning Open Champion Lowry will play in front of his home fans for the first time since claiming his maiden major title in July 2019.
Lowry, who famously won his home open as an amateur way back in 2009, will tee it up on the picturesque parkland just two weeks before he defends the Claret Jug at Royal St George’s Golf Club, hoping to build on his shared fourth place finish at the US PGA Championship. Lowry has made no secret of his desire to qualify for Harrington’s European Ryder Cup team to take on the USA at Whistling Straits in September.
“I cannot wait to get back and play in front of the Irish crowds again,” said Lowry. “I have been really eager to do so as The Open Champion before I defend the Claret Jug and hopefully I can put on a show for them at Mount Juliet for what is sure to be a memorable week.”
Harrington will play the historic tournament for the 26th successive time, two months before he captains the European Ryder Cup team in Wisconsin, and two months after earning his best major finish in nine years by finishing alongside Lowry in fourth spot at Kiawah Island.
The 49-year-old has also etched his name on the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open trophy having overcome Welshman Bradley Dredge in a play-off in 2007 – a win which proved a pre-cursor to claiming The Open Championship at Carnoustie two months later.
Harrington said: “The Irish Open is always such a unique occasion for golf fans across the whole island but it is sure to be an even bigger celebration this July with fans making a long-awaited return. I can’t wait to step onto the first tee at Mount Juliet and sample the atmosphere created by the home crowds.”
Former U.S. Open Champion McDowell, will arrive on home shores hoping to add the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open trophy to his 11 European Tour titles. The 41-year-old will play in his home event for the 19th time having made his debut in the event in 2002.
“The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open is a tournament which is very close to my heart so I’m really excited to return in July,” said McDowell. “I was disappointed not to be able to fulfil my role as host in 2020 due to the disruption of the pandemic, but this year I feel it should be a celebration of Irish golf as a whole, while also recognising the frontline heroes who have contributed so hugely during the pandemic – not about one person alone. With the strength of field, the return of the fans and a spectacular venue in Mount Juliet, it’s set to be as truly special week.”
Last year John Catlin overturned a four-stroke deficit at Galgorm Castle Golf Club, firing a sublime final round 64 to win his second European Tour title of the season.
“It’s pretty hard to describe,” Catlin said. "So many years of hard work have gone into this moment. It was my goal to win again at the start of this week, to have accomplished it is something truly, truly special. I had nothing to lose. I was going after every flag, I had good numbers and the greens were soft. So I started taking aim and hit a couple in close. I made a long one on 15 and that three wood on 18 was so satisfying. It was 268 yards to the hole, cold and damp. To just hit a big high draw in there like I know I can, under those conditions, really is hard to put into words.”
The American, who held off the challenge of former world number one Martin Kaymer to win the Andalucía Masters a couple of weeks earlier, started the day four strokes behind 54-hole leader Aaron Rai but quickly moved up the leaderboard as he made the turn in three under par.
“Winning at Valderrama was massive,” said Catlin. “You never know if you’re going to win or not, to get that monkey off my back at Valderrama really freed me up today to know I could do it. Be able to look myself in the mirror and tell myself that I’ve been here before and I can do it again.
“I’ve always wanted to play in the Majors, that’s the only level of golf I haven’t played at. Hopefully one day I can win one of those as well. To have gotten inside that top 100 is a big leap forward.”
A bogey on the 13th, his only dropped shot in 27 holes, was cancelled out by a long birdie putt on the 15th which drew him level with Rai on eight under. He pulled clear after another gain on the 16th hole and then signed for a ten under par total after a stunning three wood from 268 yards left him with an easy two putt for his seventh birdie of the day at the last.
Rai birdied the 17th to move to nine under, needing a birdie to force a play-off, but an errant second shot found trouble on the left hand side of the green and a dropped shot handed Catlin his second victory in four weeks – elevating him to 14th in the Race to Dubai presented by Rolex in the process.
“I’m feeling a little bit disappointed,” said Rai. “I can’t hide that. But I played solid for most of the week and 18 was just one of those things. It’s golf, and it happens, but John played incredibly well today and deserves it.
Mount Juliet is parkland course that was designed by Jack Nicklaus and measures 7,260 yards. It features hundreds of mature trees and rushing river water and has been voted Ireland’s best parkland course. It is a proper test that demands accuracy from the tee.
It was won in 2015 by Soren Kjeldsen, in 2016 by Rory McIlroy, in 2017 and 2019 by Jon Rahm , in 2018 by Russell Knox and in 2020 by John Catlin.
It is difficult to look beyond McIlroy and Lowry as the most likely winners. Much has been made of McIlroy’s struggles of late but his work with Pete Cowen is clearly starting to pay dividends. He won the Wells Fargo Championship and finished in a tie for seventh place at the US Open after a disappointing final round of 73. But his confidence is returning and the key thing is that he is starting to drive the ball better. Lowry is a terrific ball striker who possesses a wonderful short game and finished fourth at the US PGA Championship. Christiaan Bezuidenhout is a three-time European Tour winner who is now building a reputation for himself on the PGA Tour.
Rory McIlroy. Very close to his best
Tommy Fleetwood. Time to turn things around
Players to Follow:
Rory McIlroy. A born winner
Tommy Fleetwood. Course should be made for him
Shane Lowry. Loves playing on home soil
Christiaan Bezuidenhout. Class act
Aaron Rai. Looking to rediscover last season’s wonderful form
Alexander Bjork. Has shown some decent recent form
Eddie Pepperell. Always fun to watch
Marcus Armitage. Now knows what it takes to win
Paul Dunne. Hugely talented but low on confidence
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