Day 2 Money-back special from Paddy Power: If Graeme McDowell shoots the lowest 2nd round score, Paddy Power will refund all losing bets on 2nd round 3 balls! Full details here: Paddy Power Money-Back Specials
The European Tour moves to Northern Ireland this week as we take in the Irish Open at the Harry Colt classic at Royal Portrush. This event, plus the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart in a fortnight's time, gives the players some well-needed practice of links golf ahead of the Open Championship which is just 3 weeks away - it's no surprise therefore to see some of Europe's best links players making their way to the Emerald Isle. There has been much excitement ahead of this event as Ireland, always united when it comes to golf, welcomes back some of its most successful sons who boast a healthy haul of Major Championship trophies. Portrush locals Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell are joined by Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington in what promises to be a sell-out 4 days on the North coast of Ireland. 3 of those 4 head the betting with the out-of-form Open Champion being the odd man out, however who can forget the stories of Clarke spending day after day out on the course at Royal Portrush last winter in what clearly proved perfect preparation for his Sandwich triumph?
The courses itself is a true classic links, plus with wet and often windy weather forecast over the course of the 4 days this test will appeal to only the hardiest of players - fair-weather golfers can be expected to be heading home come the weekend. At 7,143 yards, the par 72 isn't long by today's standards despite the addition of new tees on a number of holes over recent years, however the strength and direction of the wind can have a real bearing on the playability of a number of holes, making some of the par 4s driveable whereas others virtually unreachable for some players under more extreme conditions. As you'd expect, the undulating course is exposed to the elements and despite heavy rainfall over the last few weeks the course drains well and fairway lies can be tight.
For me it's going to take a certain type of player to succeed here this week. For one, they'll need to have the mental fortitude to handle the conditions when the going gets tough, however primarily they'll need to be a proven links performer and a lover of this type of golf first and foremost. Imagination is essential to conjure up the kinds of approach shots required to succeed on a true links course, plus a deft touch around the greens is also critical. Here's who I'm backing this week:
It's not easy to scrub the likes of Rory, GMac and Clarke off your list, but of the 4 Irish Major winners I think that Harrington is most likely to prevail. McIlroy is the bookies' favourite, as he is most weeks nowadays, however the self-confessed fair-weather player isn't performing well at present and 4 missed cuts from 5 starts hardly has me rushing to back him at 7/1 - plus the forecast wind and rain isn't likely to bring the best out of him either. McDowell has certainly improved of late and his 2nd place finish at the Olympic Club is the best form on show, however no top 10s at all either in an Irish Open or an Open Championship is a poor return for a player of his quality and 10/1 is far too short for me. Clarke has had a wonderful year off of the course as he's made the most of being the Open champion, however he's not even threatened a top-10 finish since lifting the Claret Jug last July and, despite his course knowledge, this is surely too big an ask with all the media hype and expectation this week.
So that leaves Paddy Harrington who has shown more than a glimpse of form in recent weeks suggesting that his swing changes are complete and he's ready to feature in the upper echelons of golf once again. Whilst he's never won in Northern Ireland neither as a professional nor an amateur, he has numerous victories south of the border including success at Adare Manor in this event in 2007. 4 further top-6 finishes in 8 Irish Opens suggests that the expectation isn't a negative factor for Padraig and of course his 2 Open Championship titles are testament to his prowess on links formats. The 2-time Alfred Dunhill Links champion could have won at Augusta earlier this year if the putter had have been hot on Sunday - he certainly had enough chances - and a fast-finishing 4th at the US Open a fortnight ago is excellent form for this. 11th last week in the US on a course which was unlikely to suit given his comments post-US Open was a great return and he arrives at Portrush with a massive chance of getting back to winning ways in my opinion. Harrington was trading at 12.5/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: T7
One of the biggest disappointments for me this week is that Thomas Bjorn isn't playing - I think he'd have excelled here and would have stood a great chance of lifting the title as many of the events I studied for this featured the Dane heavily. Fortunately though, of similar prominence in my analysis was the resurgent Paul Lawrie who has his eyes on just one goal this season - making the Ryder Cup team. The Scot chose to miss the US Open so that he'd be fresh for these post-Olympic Club events, arguing that he'd have a better chance of accumulating the requisite points tally from these events. Last week's 23rd place finish in Germany didn't really live up to expectations though as his normally dependable driver strayed far too often. The more open terrain here and a few days of work on the range will work in Lawrie's favour however and I'm expecting the 1999 Open Champion to resume where he left off pre-US Open with a form line of 3/2/14 in conditions that are likely to play right into his hands. The former Dunhill Links Champion has also won twice in Qatar which is usually a breezy affair (as it was again this year when he prevailed) and I see no reason why Paul won't be challenging on Sunday afternoon. Lawrie was trading at 28/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: T33
Danny Willett's win last week will have resonated with Wood - like the Sheffield man, Chris has been long overdue a European Tour victory despite getting himself into a contending position on a number of occasions. Last week was another case in point for Wood who could only muster a 1-over round of 73 on Sunday to miss the playoff by a shot, however his time will surely come and a return to links golf could be just the tonic for the Bristolian as he looks to keep an improving run of form going which began with a 2nd-place finish in Sicily back in April. Wood has finished top 5 in the Open Championship on 2 of his 3 career attempts, plus 2 top 10s in 3 Irish Open starts is also impressive - clearly links golf is one of his strengths. 2nd and 5th at Pula GC in 2011 (won by Darren Clarke pre-Open) and 2010 is also encouraging - whilst not a links course, there are similar characteristics in that it's a short, exposed and undulating test with bent/poa greens - plus the Mediterranean Sea often produces a stiff test in terms of wind. This is the type of course and conditions where I can see Wood gaining his maiden victory. Wood was trading at 43/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: MC
Whilst the Irish support will no doubt be focussed on the big 4, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the former Ryder Cup Vice-Captain continue his excellent recent form on a course which he classes as one of his all-time favourites, having played it many times in the past and as recently as last month with his son. With his chance gone after a first round 75 at Open Championship qualifying on Monday, the Irishman sensibly withdrew so that he could save his energy for this week's assault on the Irish Open, an event he finished 5th in back in 2004 at Baltray, and will arrive here fresh and up for the challenge ahead. It's McGinley's current form that really catches the eye with a form line of 7/33/6/3 over his last 4 starts and those 2 most recent finishes have been in increasingly tough conditions which he revels in. The forecast wind and rain is a massive positive for the 4-time European Tour winner whose last trophy came at the Tour's ultimate grind-fest at Valderrama. If conditions are tough then don't be surprised to see McGinley heading the right way up the leaderboard when everyone else is heading south on Sunday! McGinley was trading at 54/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: T54
Finally I'm going to have a small, speculative punt on the 2008 Irish Open champion who might just have the game to compete here after a morale-boosting Open Championship qualification at Sunningdale on Monday. Finch is as streaky as they come so this is just as likely to be a huge missed cut as it is a contending performance, however at that price I'm willing to take a chance! Finch finished second to Louis Oosthuizen at the short bent/poa-greened Parador de Malaga Golf in 2010 prior to the South African's Open Championship success (Paul Lawrie won on the same course in 2011) in what was largely a forgettable season for the Englishman; 2011 was similar with a solitary runners-up finish in Sweden when a final round 69 (the only under-par round and 3 shots better than the next player) catapulted him up the leaderboard in atrocious conditions. 3rd in China at the end of April is Finch's best return of 2012, however a return to Ireland where he claimed his biggest victory, conditions that may well give him an edge -as well as being buoyed by a start at Royal Lytham and St Annes next month - I wouldn't be at all shocked to see him in the mix on Sunday at might turn out to be a bargain price. Finch was trading at 229/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: MC
Our tips, picks and predictions for the 2013 edition of this event will be published here on the Tuesday before the event - bookmark this page and come back soon!