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After last week's ball-striking masterclass from Tommy Fleetwood in Paris where the in-form Englishman defied course form of MC/MC/MC/MC to capture his third European Tour title, we head to the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland and the Portstewart Golf Club for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open which is once again hosted by Rory McIlroy and his charity.
Last year's topsy-turvy schedule saw this event immediately follow The Players Championship in May, however a far more logical spot in the calendar makes this year's Irish Open the first leg of a links-heavy warm-up for The Open Championship in a fortnight's time as we head from here to Dundonald Links for the Scottish Open once we've crowned our Irish Open champion on Sunday. The improvement in scheduling, the fact that this event is now part of the Rolex Series with its boosted $7m prize fund, plus the undoubted influence of our host has seen an excellent field assembled with Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Rose joining Jon Rahm as the headline attractions alongside Rory himself. Last week's massively impressive victor Tommy Fleetwood leads the more regular European Tour contingent in what's sure to be an exciting, high-class event.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the Greenbrier Classic - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Overview. A relatively late change in plan from the European Tour - a decision made in April - saw the original venue planned for this year's renewal, the inland track at Lough Erne, switched to the links at Portstewart which sits just 4 miles from Royal Portrush along the coastline. Described as one of Northern Ireland's 'hidden gems' by our illustrious host, Portstewart's Strand Course is a 7,118 yard, par 72 that has been freshly extended for this week's challenge with a few new back tees and some tweaks to bunkers and greens to make it more of a challenge for the professionals. The course dates back to 1894 originally, however the layout as we'll see it this week was only completed in 1992 when 7 new holes, which form the stretch from the 2nd through to the 8th, were carved from the dunes to create what is a magnificent stretch of links golf.
A conventional par 72 layout of 4 par 3s, 10 par 4s and 4 par 5s awaits the players, however the card doesn't tell the whole story of this course as you'd expect on a layout that's truly been carved out of the local links land. The par 3s are varied, measuring between 143 yards (6th hole) to 218 yards (3rd), whereas the par 4s are more standard fare at between 366 and 471 yards from the Championship tees. The par 5s measure 516, 522, 555 and 583 yards and will undoubtedly present opportunities to score for those players who can find the fairway from off the tee.
You can get a feel for the Strand Course from these gallery pictures, however my view is that isn't a particularly tight layout and success or failure here will be down to how a player fares from his 2nd shot and in. Wind and firm, fast conditions are the main defence of many a coastal links track and Portstewart is no different, however in the absence of either the professionals are likely to score heavily on these creeping bentgrass greens that should run between 10'-11' on the stimp, depending on conditions.
Portstewart has hosted a few low-key/amateur events over the years, including most recently the British Amateur Championship in 2014 - final results of the strokeplay element are here - where the Scot Bradley Neil eventually triumphed. Some of the amateurs shot 67 here that week and whilst the course will be set up longer and more challenging for the European Tour professionals, it nevertheless suggests that in good conditions scoring is likely to be low. The British Girls Championship was also hosted here in 2006 (won by Belen Mozo) as was the Irish Amateur in 1992 which was won by Gary Murphy.
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 Portstewart 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. 2016: Rory McIlroy, 4/1; 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 6 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 peaking in the low 60s Fahrenheit. The breeze will be light for the first couple of days before picking up over the weekend to around 15 mph as a little more sunshine threatens to break through, however that's unlikely to overly trouble the professionals here.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Looking at the last few Irish Opens gives us some idea of that kind of skill-sets that this week's test may demand:
A variety of different courses used may explain the disparity between stats in the results above, however at least with the Ulster-based events in 2012 (Royal Portrush) and 2015 (Royal County Down) the emphasis was more on short game expertise than ball-striking prowess.
Incoming Form: There are positives to pick out of the recent form of our past 5 Irish Open champions and none arrived in what you'd class as poor form. All 5 had recorded a top-10 finish in their previous 7 outings and all had made the weekend on their previous start, albeit without really threatening the top of the leaderboard on the Sunday. A similar trend continues with Dyson (2011) and Fisher (2010), broken eventually by the shock win from Shane Lowry as an amateur in 2009:
Event Form (back to 2010): Despite the fact that the venue and style of course used for the Irish Open varies from year to year, it's interesting to note that the past 5 winners had all recorded at least one top-13 finish in the event prior to winning. Again the same can be said about Simon Dyson and Ross Fisher in their respective victories with the trend once again falling down with Shane Lowry's success at Baltray:
We're going to have to take a leap of faith to a certain degree this week with the course hosting its first European Tour event here. Portstewart is a genuine links course that demands a certain style of golf when played in firm, fast conditions with a bit of wind around to keep players honest. Whilst the course hasn't been deluged with water in recent times and it undoubtedly drains well, I suspect it will still be a long way from what the ground staff would like in an ideal world though in terms of speed and difficulty. Predicting wind speeds for coastal golf isn't an exact science, however the first two days at least here look relatively calm which suggests to me that this will be a low-scoring affair where players who are dialled-in with their irons and putt well will prevail. A sharp short game is always an asset on any links track and those who can make the most of their chances this week whilst minimising mistakes should march towards the top of the leaderboard.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My selections are as follows:
A classy event with world number 2 Hideki Matsuyama and number 4 Rory McIlroy in attendance for starters takes some unravelling. The Japanese star's runner-up finish to Brooks Koepka at the US Open has catapulted him to a career-best OWGR ranking having experienced somewhat of a lull in recent times following a blistering spell of form either side of Christmas. Links golf though is something that the 25 year-old is relatively inexperienced at and despite an Open Championship 6th on debut in 2013, I suspect he's still learning this part of the game and his attendance here is more about sharpening his game for a fortnight's time. Rory on the other hand is the defending champion and has also won the Claret Jug in his relatively short career to date and clearly can't be discounted. A potentially easier than hoped for set-up will help Rory this week and his ball-striking looked in pretty good shape on his last start at the Travelers Championship, however it's been a frustrating few months for the Northern Irishman and he still looked rusty on and around the greens last time out which may just prove pivotal this week.
Jon Rahm should enjoy this test a little more than a penal Le Golf National track however he's relatively inexperienced on links terrain, Justin Rose hasn't played since missing the cut at the US Open and Tommy Fleetwood, as well as he's playing at the moment, is surely mentally and physically exhausted after three consecutive big weeks and the Southport man missed two consecutive cuts after winning in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. For me, preference over all of these big names goes to Thomas Pieters who's well worth taking a chance on at 25/1.
For me, the Belgian superstar is more of a birdie-maker than grinder and to be honest I was surprised to see him quite so prominent in Paris last week. Career wins at -17, -19 and -20 tell its own story and whilst I suspect that over time he'll develop the discipline and experience to tackle and succeed in the tougher tests of golf, for now he's better suited to events where a score can be more readily made and with one of those aforementioned victories coming at the coastal, linksy KLM Open in 2015, he's already got what could prove to be some correlating form for this.
The driver took the brunt of Thomas's frustration at Le Golf National and after apologising on twitter for his actions he vowed to talk it through with coach Pete Cowan and that could be pivotal for this week. Cowan has worked with Pieters since he was a teenager and the Yorkshireman shares the same fiery temperament as his young student which will undoubtedly help him re-focus on what is a wholly more suitable test this week. One of Cowan's other clients Brooks Koepka snapped his driver at the Honda Classic earlier this season - the rest is history - and Thomas can undoubtedly learn from this and contend and ultimately win here this week.
A star-studded cast is only likely to spur the Antwerp man on this week and we've already seen at the Ryder Cup last year that he thrives when mixing it with the biggest names in golf. 2nd behind Dustin Johnson at the Genesis Open earlier this year, 5th at the WGC Mexico Championship and 4th at Augusta all underline the point that he won't be overawed with Rory, Matsuyama et al in attendance and with positive links/coastal form under his belt, amenable bentgrass putting surfaces and a free-scoring contest likely, I can see him seriously contending here this week if Cowan's words of wisdom can immediately hit home. 2nd for scrambling at Wentworth and 8th on the same count last week also bode well for any links assignment and the putter was hot once again last week as he ranked 4th for putts per GIR.
Another classy player who can trouble the favourites here this week is Thorbjorn Olesen. A former winner of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and with plenty of coastal form to his name over the years, the Dane is well-suited to a test like this and although he's quite difficult to call right, he's worth a chance at 33/1 against a number of more fancied players who may well be more interested in sharpening their games rather than lifting the trophy here this week. At 78th in the OWGR and with a stack of ranking points up for grabs here this week, Olesen knows that this is a huge opportunity for him to head back towards a top-50 spot that his talent undoubtedly deserves.
In general, if there was a weakness in Olesen's game then it would be from off the tee. What he often lacks in accuracy he more than makes up for on and around the greens which is generally a good recipe for links golf where wide fairways and tough scrambling generally feature, however his overall performance at Le Golf National last week was more than noteworthy. 8th for driving accuracy on what's still a tough assignment from tee-to-green despite the softening of some of the rough this year was impressive and 2nd for putting on the week puts him in a great place ahead of this week in my view. 4th at the Nordea Masters 2 events prior also featured a strong putting display (4th in the field) coupled with a 76.7% scrambling performance which was the best on show and it won't take a great deal more for him to get over the line once again sooner rather than later.
10th at last year's Irish Open is positive, however 18th at Portrush in 2012 is probably more tangible form for this especially as he could easily have finished far higher seeing as his final round of 71 was the worst score out of the top-20 finishers on the Sunday. The 27 year-old has talked of late of feeling in a far calmer state with his game mentally and that's certainly translating into strong enough finishes to warrant support here.
3 players to complete me team here this week. First up Peter Uihlein who ranked highly in this week's predictor whichever way I cut it and I can't ignore that. Plenty of the commentary last week in France touched on his good friend Brooks Koepka's triumph at the US Open and what kind of positive effect that might have on his game and if that indeed is a factor - Uihein alluded to as much in interview - then perhaps we'll see the 27 year-old push on in the weeks and months to come. Not that he was having a particularly poor season anyway with the US Open marking his first missed cut of 2017 and top-7 finishes recorded at the SA Open, Dubai Desert Classic, Tshwane Open and Puerto Rico Open on the PGA Tour before his 2nd place effort last week in Paris. 82.6% scrambling at Le Golf National was the number which really stood out for me and we know with Peter that he can be an excellent putter when on his game. With his length off the tee, the par 5s here should offer excellent scoring opportunities and with his sole European Tour victory coming by the coast in Madeira, plus a 2013 Alfred Dunhill Links play-off defeat to his name, I find little reason not to side with an in-form and inspired Peter Uihlein this week.
Of the Irish hopes from both north and south of the border, our host Rory McIlroy will no doubt be expected to stand the best chance of winning here, however Dublin-born Paul Dunne shouldn't be discounted either and he's a lively outsider at 66/1. 60th on Irish Open debut last year doesn't tell us much, however the 24 year-old has come on bundles in the past 12 months finishing 6th at the Tshwane Open then losing out in a play-off to Edoardo Molinari in Morrocco and this excellent putter will surely win on the European Tour before too long. Paul can clearly play links golf - it was at the Home Of Golf that he first surfaced to the wider audience by leading the 2015 Open Championship after 54-holes as an amateur before eventually finishing 30th from the final Sunday group - and that bodes well for this and future links events I'm sure. Last week's effort in France may have been flattered somewhat by an excellent finish that saw him record seven 3s in his final eight holes at Le Golf National to finish off with an excellent round of 65 - that was a massive improvement over last year's missed cut and featured a field-leading 1.60 putts per GIR. With his confidence high this could be another big week for the young Irishman.
Finally I've saved a few pennies for a punt on Welshman Bradley Dredge. If it's a decent putter we want then few can roll the rock as well as Bradley and the 43 year-old tends to come alive whenever playing in the UK and Ireland. 5 top-10 finishes in this event at its various venues over his last 9 starts is impressive indeed and a tie for 2nd behind Rory McIlroy last year isn't to be sniffed at either. Fact is that Bradley doesn't win anywhere near enough tournaments that his ability would suggest - indeed his second of 2 victories came more than a decade ago at the 2006 Omega European Masters - however when he does get it right he can obliterate a field as both of his wins have come by a massive 8 strokes. His other victory came at the coastal Madeira Islands Open and 2nd at the 2006 Alfred Dunhill Links behind Padraig Harrington is also useful if a little old form. 6th for scrambling last week in Paris was encouraging, as was a top-20 performance in the GIR category, and an each-way place here isn't out of the question by any means.
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