The European Tour heads to Ireland this week for the first of two warm-up links events before the Open Championship. Next week the players will tee it up at the Scottish Open, but first some of the World’s best will tee it up in Portstewart, Northern Ireland for the Irish Open.
Thanks to Rory McIlroy there are a host of stars here this week including Spaniard, Jon Rahm who makes his second consecutive start on the European Tour. Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Rose will also tee it up this week and help headline a strong event.
For Rahm this is his way of ensuring he is eligible for the European Ryder Cup team, whilst for Matsuyama this is a great way for him to prepare for the Open Championship, and I am sure he is also picking up a sizeable appearance fee.
McIlroy won the event last year but the Irish Open does throw up some surprise winners, notably Shane Lowry who won when still an amateur in 2009.
The last five winners have all used their win here as a springboard for further success, with Jamie Donaldson getting his first European Tour win here in 2012, which ultimately led to him qualifying for the 2014 Ryder Cup, whilst Paul Casey returned to the winners circle for the first time in two years, when he was crowned champion a year later. Mikko Ilonen won here in 2014 and went on to add a win at the Volvo World Match Play later that year and 2015 champion, Soren Kjeldsen used his victory here to qualify for all the majors in 2016 and subsequently finished top-9 at both the Masters and the Open Championship. Following his win here last year, McIlroy then went on to add the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Tour Championship later on in the same season.
It really does look like success here brings out the very best in a player and many will be hoping to use this event to further their career. Given its obvious comparison to an Open Championship those at the head of the field will be happy to use this a tune-up for the third major of the year, with the win an added bonus. Others however will look at this as one of the more prestigious events of the European Tour season, as the Tour heads towards the business end of the season.
The Course and what to look for in a winner
Portstewart GC (The Strand Course) 7,004 Yards, Par 72
Given its short length (7,004 yards) distance off the tee is only going to become an issue if it pelts it down with rain and even then it still isn’t going to play that long. As it is, rain is forecast but given a lot of tee shots require less-than-driver, rain shouldn’t cause issues.
As like most links tests, wind is the key factor and if this does get up (which it isn’t forecast to so far) then the winning score could be much nearer Soren Kjeldesen’s -2 in 2015 than Jamie Donaldson’s -18 in 2012. As it stands, extreme weather shouldn’t play much of a part in the winning score, which could well go into double-digit under par for the 9th time since Padraig Harrington’s -5 winning score in 2007.
Good links form is going to be key and if you haven’t got that, then signs that you can cope with this sort of test is going to be essential. Not every player in the field has been blessed with multiple opportunities around links courses but may well have shown signs in small doses, so it is important to look for the clues.
Without further ado, here are my picks for the 2017 Irish Open.
Peter Uihlein 50/1 (Coral 7 places 1/5 or SportingBet 6 places 1/4) 1pt e/w:
Peter Uihlein tends to ride form pretty well, so after finishing just a shot behind last week’s winner, Tommy Fleetwood I can see the American going well again at an event he should enjoy. Uihlein shared the leader after 54 holes last week and after a shaky start which saw him make two bogeys in the first 5 holes, Uihlein bounced back with a birdie at the 6th and a further four birdies on the back-9 to post a final-round 68.
I say he should enjoy this test because two of Uihlein’s best finishes on Tour have come on links courses. In 2013, Uihlein lost out in a play-off to David Howell at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, after finishing T10 at the Scottish Open earlier that season. In terms of world ranking points, last week was his best finish just bettering that runner-up finish at the Alfred Dunhill. Both of these finishes rank higher than the co-sanctioned Madeira Islands Open event Uihlein won in 2013. As such, Uihlein will be desperate to get a win in a much bigger event with a much stronger field.
Not only has Uihlein played well in Scotland, adding a T18 finish at the Alfred Dunhill a year after that runner-up finish, Uihlein also has previous at this event. In 2013, Uihlein shared the 36-hole lead with Robert Rock at Carton House but Uihlein followed up rounds of 67-68 with rounds of 74-77 over the weekend, to put to sword any chances of winning.
Whilst Carton House is an inland-links track as opposed to a traditional links and as such can’t be used as direct links form, it is still encouraging that he has shown signs of contending in this part of the world.
He will have had a bad taste in his mouth since that event and will no doubt want to put things right this week after missing the event in 2014 and 2016. A T60 finish in 2015 makes his record in this event looks less-than-stellar but I am confident after last week he can put that right here.
Good form on links courses, coupled with a near-miss last week was enough to peak my attention. His 2nd last week was his fourth top-5 finish worldwide and fifth top-7 finish of 2017 so he has definitely been working his way towards a win all year long. Should he continue the form he showed last week, this may well be one of the best chances of getting the win his play this season deserves.
Renato Paratore 100/1 (StanJames 6 places 1/4, Boylesports 7 places 1/5, General 5 places) 1pt e/w:
A winner three starts ago, Paratore became the youngest to do so on the European Tour, taking the honours previously held by countryman, Mateo Manassero. Before his win though his best ever performance (OWGR wise) on the European Tour was a T7 finish at last year’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, highlighting his Links credentials.
Paratore played at this course as an amateur at the 2014 Amateur Champinship and shot 71, whilst shooting 66 at the neighbouring Royal Portrush en-route to finishing T2 in the stroke play part of the event. Add this to his efforts at the Dunhill Links and his T22 at the Scottish Open in 2015 and there is plenty of reason to believe he can go well.
Of course the 71 here on its own is hardly worth shouting about but its experience at the course than many others don’t have and he generally played quite well round the course making three birdies, 13 pars, one bogey and a double.
He did miss the cut last week but he had also done the same on his previous two starts at Le Golf National, so maybe he just doesn’t like the course. A T6 at the BMW international Open just a week after the Nordea Masters suggests his game is still in good shape, should the course/test suit.
Speaking of the Nordea Masters, that event itself is always compared to a links test as well, even if not played on true links courses, so a win there only adds further fuel to picking him this week.
A missed cut on his debut in this event two years ago doesn’t help his case but given his age and inexperience at that stage it can easily be forgiven, especially when you look at his efforts since on similar tests.
Simply put, 100/1 about a player who has won three starts ago and has already impressed on links courses so far in his short career is plenty appealing enough for me.
Ryan Fox 150/1 (Coral 7 places 1/5) 0.5pt e/w:
The one player who is untested in terms of links golf is the ever-improving Ryan Fox. Fox’s T6 at the Open de France last week was his best ever finish on the European Tour and caps off a run of good form.
Since missing three straight cuts at the Volvo China Open, Rocco Forte Open and the BMW PGA Championship, Fox has managed to find something in his game and post four consecutive finishes of T26 or better.
The big-hitting New Zealander has taken his time to make it to the European Tour but does have a pair of wins on both the Challenge Tour and the PGA of Australasia Tour. With four professional wins since 2014 to his name, it is clear he knows what it takes to get over the line and now just needs to make the step up in class.
One of those four wins came in Northern Ireland last year, when he beat recent European Tour winner, Dylan Fritelli amongst four other strong Challenge Tour players at the time to win the Northern Ireland Open. It was not a links style course that week but for me a win in any capacity in the same part of the world you are pegging it up in can only bode well. Even if it doesn’t add any confidence to Fox’s game this week, due to the difference in test it should at the very least bring up some good, winning memories that he may well be able to draw on throughout the week.
His main strength is no doubt his distance off the tee (averaging over 321 yards this season) but that will be almost negated this week given the course. Instead, Fox will have to rely on other areas of his game.
Fox currently ranks a very respectable T22 in Greens in Regulation, hitting 76.34% over the course of the season. Unfortunately for him, he has been struggling when he gets to the green, averaging almost 31 putts a round (ranks 237th in Putts per Round). This would have improved in recent weeks, given his recent results so look for that figure to improve dramatically should his form remain as steady as it has been over the last month or so. Plenty of good players struggle with the putter over the course of a season (Alex Noren ranks 167th and averages over 30 putts a round) but they click on given weeks, and Fox looks to be doing that of late.
It is hard to tell how Fox will cope with this test, especially if the weather does come into play over the week but I think it is worth chancing he goes well, given his current form and generous price. He certainly looks a classy player and to me looks ready to make that step up and get his first win on the bigger stage.
Total Points Staked this week: 5
Profit/Loss for 2017: -22