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The Irish Open is our next stop as we finally move away from the low-grade, co-sanctioned affairs that the European Tour has thrown us over the past few weeks and return to European soil ahead of a decent run of events with the Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship, just a week away. Rory McIlroy will once again play host as his charity, the Rory Foundation, supports this week's tournament at the K Club in what is another change to the event's scheduling, this time to fall the week before rather than the week after Wentworth.
12 of the World's top-50 players have made the starting line-up here this week, most of whom have flown directly from TPC Sawgrass after last week's Players Championship. McIlroy heads the field both in terms of OWGR and being bookies favourite with 4/1 generally the best price on offer about him turning around his recent Irish Open form of MC/MC/MC and winning here. Masters champion Danny Willett tees up in Europe for the first time since capturing the Green Jacket, although I suspect it will be next week on home soil where his elevated stardom will reach fever-pitch. Russell Knox, who was in contention at Sawgrass until dunking three balls in the water on 17, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Shane Lowry, Andy Sullivan and Augusta runner-up Lee Westwood, who is twice a winner on this track from his early career, all add to the quality of this event relative to what we've been used to in recent weeks.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the AT&T Byron Nelson Championship - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Overview. The Irish Open tends to move around a bit in terms of venue and this year the Palmer Course at the Kildare Hotel and Golf Club - K Club to you and me - will host the Irish Open for the first time, well worth bearing this in mind when reviewing the event history stats as all tournaments played in that analysis have been hosted elsewhere.
The track is a 7,350 yard par 72 located in Straffan, County Kildare a few miles west of Dublin and is a parkland course designed by Arnold Palmer that opened in 1991. The course played host to the 2006 Ryder Cup where Ian Woosnam's team smashed the Americans 18.5-9.5 in typically Irish conditions and this week's forecast suggests we're in for much of the same as weather systems push across the British Isles throughout the event. The Palmer Course was also the venue for the European Open between 1995-2003 and again in 2005 with the K Club's other course, the links-style Smurfit Course, hosting the event in 2004, and 2006 and 2007 - well worth bearing this in mind if you're reviewing those leaderboards.
Carved originally from 550 acres of beautiful Irish Countryside, the layout is a strong course for driving with water lurking on most holes, undulating fairways and long, Poa-Annua greens. A tricky winter for the greenkeeping staff has meant that putting surfaces are only just reaching the kind of standard that they'd hope for and rough growth has been stunted until recent warmer weather, however with 10 years of maturity for the trees and bushes since the Palmer Course was used for the Ryder Cup, I'm expecting this to set up well for the more accurate types off the tee.
At 7,350 yards in length and with rain in the forecast, the course is likely to play long and tough - if any doubt remains that this track has teeth then a cursory look at the 2005 leaderboard tells you all you need to know with Kenneth Ferrie winning at 3-under par and only another two of his peers finishing in red figures after 72 holes.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Irish Open that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event, although as mentioned above please note that the K Club is being used for the first time this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2015: Soren Kjeldsen, 150/1; 2014: Mikko Ilonen, 80/1; 2013: Paul Casey, 50/1; 2012: Jamie Donaldson, 66/1; 2011: Simon Dyson, 25/1; 2010: Ross Fisher, 20/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the area is here. The tournament will be played in a mixture of rain and brighter spells with cool temperatures in the mid-50s Fahrenheit. A South-Westerly breeze in the 15-20 mph region will ensure that this is a solid test of golf.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
We have to go back to those aforementioned European Open events played on the Palmer Course a decade or more ago to get some feel as to the type of player who is likely to go well here this week:
Generally 60% or more fairways hit is required and a strong GIR performance looks to be a pre-requisite if you can see past Lee Westwood's stats, although much depends on the conditions here with more than a dozen shots separating the winning score from 2003 to 2005. This is a scoreable course in perfect conditions with plenty of risk-reward holes as is befitting a Ryder Cup venue, however in trickier weather the course has teeth and at 7,350 yards and plenty of dog-legs and holes with water in play, this layout can soon become a bogey avoidance grind.
Ultimately I think we'll come back to the weather this week. Rain is forecast in some shape or form on all four days, however it's likely to be the persistent, drizzly kind that grinds players down if they're caught in it for too long and it certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea. At present there's some uncertainty as to how the weekend will pan out, however it's quite possible that a deeper weather system will move in which could make conditions particularly tough. We shall see.
Bookmaker Offers. A number of bookmakers have extended their each-way terms again this week plus there's a couple of other offers out there:
For me, this maturing layout lends itself to those more adept from off the tee and with wet conditions likely I'm looking for players who are consistently strong Total Driving performers in that they're generally long and straight from off the tee. Iron play will be critical, however if it does turn nasty then those with a strong par-saving short game could well find themselves moving ever closer to the top of the leaderboard. Players with an early tee time on Thursday could have an advantage given the latest forecast and I'm going with 4 players from the morning wave.
My selections are as follows:
A soft golf course that rewards long, accurate driving would appear to be perfect fit for tournament host and bookies favourite Rory McIlroy and even at a skinny (to say the least!) 4/1 I'm sure there'll be plenty of takers this week. Rory's struggled to perform at the Irish Open over the years though: 7th place way back in 2008 still ranks as his best effort and he's missed the cut each of the past 3 years. He's talented enough to overcome all of that of course, however for me his putting is still a big concern and the adjustment - and this goes for all of those flying in from Florida - from last week's glass-like putting surfaces to what's likely to be an increasingly soggy Ireland may be a little too tricky to overcome. The next 5 in the betting, namely Willett, Lowry, Knox, McDowell and Cabrera-Bello, are also all playing after returning from varying levels of success at TPC Sawgrass and I'm happy to take them all on with the well-rested Joost Luiten.
Luiten is one of the more readable players in the game and for me everything points to another contending, and potentially winning, week here in Ireland. When the Dutchman is heading towards a win he seemingly has to go through all of the gears until everything clicks and he's good to go; early season form of 5th in Abu Dhabi, 13th in Qatar, 8th in Dubai and 6th In Thailand all pointed towards a win that didn't come and with no Masters invite the 30 year-old had to frustratingly sit out for a few weeks while he had momentum. Back-to-back runners-up finishes at the Spanish Open and Shenzhen International were then agonisingly close for Luiten, however it was his tie for 44th at the China Open which bizarrely gets him the nod here. 5th for Total Driving that week and over 80% of Greens In Regulation for the second week on the trot is the final piece of the jigsaw for me and having returned home to practice while others were jet-setting to Morocco, Mauritius or Florida, Joost will arrive here fresh and reinvigorated as he looks to improve on his OWGR ranking of 65th with this weekend's top-60 US Open deadline looming.
Positive performances in the past in wet conditions, including his 2013 KLM Open Victory, plus an adept player in breezy conditions, this week sets up very nicely for the 4-time European Tour winner.
If Total Driving is indeed the key to unlocking the Palmer Course then Ross Fisher demands to be backed. Both long and straight when he's playing his best golf, the 35 year-old has been striking the ball beautifully for his past 4 events and this week seems to be the perfect match for the former Irish Open champion who triumphed when the event has held at Killarney in 2010.
1st for Total Driving at Doral is no mean feat on that layout, however to back that up with an identical ranking in terms of ball-striking tells us just where Fisher's long game is right now and he hasn't been outside the top-3 on either count for his past 3 events in Spain, Shenzhen and China - clearly he just needs something to click with the putter and he's got to go very close to winning a 6th European Tour event. Well capable of maintaining his rhythm and composure in both wet and windy conditions, the Londoner has spent the past couple of weeks working hard on his fitness as well as his putting and arrives here fresh for the fight.
If there's one player in this field who's acquitted himself well in tough conditions in the past then it's Thongchai Jaidee and if this does turn into a grind then I can see the 46 year-old gravitating to the top of the leaderboard more readily than most. Recent form may be enough to put many punters off - 28/33/57/MC/MC looks more like a player struggling with his game than a potential contender it has to be said - however I beg to differ. That stretch of results was all in the US on either PGA Tour, WGC or Major events and following a similar pattern last season the former paratrooper returned to European Tour action to finish runner-up behind Benny An at Wentworth before producing a top-10 finish at last year's Irish Open.
Victory at the European Open in September was Jaidee's 7th European Tour win and having once been classed as a specialist on Asian tracks only, the Thai has now captured his last three trophies on European soil. 3 top-20 finishes from his 3 attempts at the Irish Open is an excellent return for Thongchai and he'll be keen to bounce back to form ahead of next week's BMW PGA Championship.
Some players dine out after their first main Tour victory whereas others grab the opportunity with both hands and move onto bigger and better things. Whether Andrew Johnston quickly backs up his maiden success at Valderrama last month remains to be seen, however this layout would seem to be a strong fit given his Total Driving ability and with the potential for tough conditions this week will be a true acid test as to 'Beef's' desire to take his career on to another level.
3rd for Total Driving and 2nd for Ball-Striking in Perth on his start prior to that success in Spain was a big indicator of potential for the 27 year old and having topped both driving accuracy and GIR at the iconic Spanish track he was a worthy winner in the end. This test isn't as tight of course, however the ability to keep your ball in play and hit greens isn't so dissimilar and the additional asset that Johnston possesses versus a lot of his straight-hitting peers is that he can do so whilst averaging well over 290 yards off the tee (293 yards season to date). Two missed cuts from two attempts at the Irish Open in the past can easily be overlooked given the change in venue and adding a second European Tour title in quick succession shouldn't be dismissed given that he followed up his maiden Challenge Tour title in 2014 with another just 4 weeks later.
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