Paul Williams

Paul Williams' Irish Open Tips 2019

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After a disappointing week at Valderrama with my remaining selections Andrew Johnston and Ashley Chesters making no impact over the weekend, we move on to the West coast of Ireland and the stunning Lahinch Golf Club for this year’s Irish Open.

With Rory McIlroy’s foundation no longer supporting the event and the man himself opting to play in Scotland as his Open Championship warm-up as opposed to this week, we’re presented with one of the weaker Irish Open fields of recent years. Clearly without Rory’s influence to attract the elite to Ireland, plus a contracted Majors season which has meant that schedules have had to be carefully mapped out and sacrifices made, the attendee list has suffered a little, however we still have former Irish Open champion and world no.11 Jon Rahm headlining as well as leading the bookmakers’ lists at around the 8/1 mark generally.

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair on the field quality as the likes of Tommy Fleetwood, Louis Oosthuizen, Matt Wallace, Shane Lowry, Ian Poulter, Eddie Pepperell, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Tyrrell Hatton, Haotong Li, Lucas Bjerregaard and Justin Harding are here to battle it out for the Rolex Series prize money and points, however the general lack of PGA Tour players is telling. That’s good news though for the remainder of the field and with the Open Championship now a little over a fortnight away, players who haven’t already qualified for golf’s oldest Major have another chance to secure their place in the field by finishing as one of the top 3 non-qualified players inside the eventual top 10 on the leaderboard. A huge incentive for many of this week’s field of course and a chance for all to get their competitive juices flowing on a true links test on the Irish coast.

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Course Overview. Described as the ‘St Andrews of Ireland’, Lahinch promises to be a beautiful setting for this year’s Irish Open. Originally designed by Old Tom Morris in the 19th century and with subsequent tweaks from the likes of Charles Gibson, Alister Mackenzie and Martin Hawtree, the course now stretches to 7,036 yards for its par of 70 and is a links course through and through.

The 2nd and 4th holes, which play as par-5s for the members, will be long par-4s this week to stop the scoring getting out of control, however with a relatively short front 9 and two mid-length par-5s plus a driveable par-4 on the back 9, the course sets up for birdies in calm conditions for the professionals. You can get a feel for the course here on the Lahinch club website. Essentially this is a traditional style links track with undulating fairways, sand dunes, blind shots, penal bunkering and rough as well as large greens and, as always on this type of layout, the elements are the main defence.

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 please note that Lahinch is being used for this event for the first time this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes | Combined Stats.

Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.

Winners & Prices. 2018: Russell Knox, 28/1; 2017: Jon Rahm, 14/1; 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 since 2010 click here.

Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the area is here. Both the UK & Ireland have enjoyed a relatively warm and dry spell of late which will have made the course firm up as you’d expect from a links layout. Temperatures will peak in the low 60s Fahrenheit each afternoon with dry conditions and sunny spells. Winds will be generally light as high pressure builds over the British Isles and although there’ll undoubtedly be some breeze from the sea, it’s not forecast to be of the kind of strength that would offer significant defence to this track.

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:

  • 2018: Russell Knox. 305 yards (18th), 53.3% fairways (19th), 77.8% greens in regulation (1st), 62.5% scrambling (18th), 1.73 putts per GIR (15th).
  • 2017: Jon Rahm. 302 yards (8th), 51.8% fairways (36th), 81.9% greens in regulation (4th), 46.2% scrambling (56th), 1.61 putts per GIR (3rd).
  • 2016: Rory McIlroy. 293 yards (9th), 60.7% fairways (23rd), 83.3% greens in regulation (1st), 58.3% scrambling (21st), 1.87 putts per GIR (52nd).
  • 2015: Soren Kjeldsen. 280 yards (28th), 67.9% fairways (5th), 62.5% greens in regulation (18th), 66.7% scrambling (5th), 1.82 putts per GIR (19th).
  • 2014: Mikko Ilonen. 291 yards (31st), 51.9% fairways (31st), 73.6% greens in regulation (27th), 78.9% scrambling (1st), 1.66 putts per GIR (6th).
  • 2013: Paul Casey. 287 yards (18th), 44.6% fairways (41st), 73.6% greens in regulation (10th), 68.4% scrambling (10th), 1.68 putts per GIR (4th).
  • 2012: Jamie Donaldson. 289 yards (8th), 58.9% fairways (35th), 62.5% greens in regulation (64th), 63.0% scrambling (5th), 1.51 putts per GIR (1st).

A variety of different courses used may explain the disparity between stats in the results above and, depending on the course and conditions being played on any given year, either high GIR or a strong short game have been the winning formula in general.

The past 3 Irish Opens have been won with GIR ranks of 1st, 4th and 1st and winning scores of -14 (Knox), Rahm (-24) and McIlroy (-12), and unless conditions seriously deteriorate in these types of events, maximising greens hit is never a bad strategy. In tougher years the emphasis switches towards scrambling and par-saving putts, however with a relatively placid forecast I’d expect Lahinch to offer up birdies to those who can find greens in the requisite number and of course convert enough putts.

Incoming Form: There are positives to pick out of the recent form of our past 7 Irish Open champions and none arrived in what you’d class as poor form. All 7 had recorded a top-10 finish in their previous 7 outings and all had made the weekend on their previous start, the most lofty finish of which was from last year’s winner Russell Knox who’d finished 2nd at Le Golf National courtesy of a flying final round of 65. A similar trend continues with Dyson (2011) and Fisher (2010), broken eventually by the shock win from Shane Lowry as an amateur in 2009:

  • 2018, Russell Knox: MC/MC/16/20/44/12/38/2
  • 2017, Jon Rahm: 10/27/4/72/2/MC/MC/10
  • 2016, Rory McIlroy: 20/MC/3/27/4/10/4/12
  • 2015, Soren Kjeldsen: MC/45/MC/14/MC/31/9/18
  • 2014, Mikko Ilonen: 5/33/37/MC/8/MC/38/32
  • 2013, Paul Casey: MC/16/MC/8/MC/51/45/53
  • 2012, Jamie Donaldson: 51/3/63/44/15/53/WD/22

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 prior to Jon Rahm’s debut win in 2017, the previous 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, however Russell Knox bolstered the stat having finished 2nd on debut in 2016:

  • 2018, Russell Knox: 2
  • 2017, Jon Rahm: Debut
  • 2016, Rory McIlroy:  MC/7/50/35/34/10/MC/MC/M
  • 2015, Soren Kjeldsen: MC/33/MC/35/6/64/MC/45/35/30/MC/18/MC
  • 2014, Mikko Ilonen: 49/MC/WD/16/MC/MC/10/32
  • 2013, Paul Casey: MC/13/2
  • 2012, Jamie Donaldson: MC/MC/MC/MC/MC/13/21/45

As ever with a new course on the rota, we’re going to have to take a leap of faith to a certain degree here this week. Some of the local players will be familiar with the course as will some of those who spent their amateur years in the UK and Ireland, however that’s certainly the exception rather than the rule. For the Irish players, winning their national Open of course ranks as a huge achievement and that can inspire and intimidate players in equal measure when push comes to shove on Sunday.

Open Championship qualifying is another important side-plot here this week. Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Adri Arnaus and Mike Lorenzo-Vera all secured their place at Royal Portrush courtesy of their performances last week in Spain and another 3 players will find their way into the field this week with a top-10 finish. In addition, a small number of this week’s field will also be attempting to qualify for The Open through Final Qualifying – notables include Julian Suri, Sam Horsfield, Matthew Southgate and Andrew Johnston.

For me, this will be an interesting warm-up for the Open Championship for those in attendance with a true links course being played in firm conditions. Whilst the wind doesn’t look like it’s going to make this an overly challenging test here on the Irish coast, players will nevertheless need to be able to adjust their games for the conditions underfoot and those most comfortable on scoreable coastal/links courses may well gravitate to the top of the leaderboard over the four days.

My selections are as follows:

Erik Van Rooyen 2pts EW 35/1 (7EW, 1/5) with Betfred

At the top of the market, Jon Rahm demands the utmost respect having already won an Irish Open in 2017 and finished 4th when defending last year, plus with current form of 3rd (Pebble Beach) and 2nd last week at Valderrama he’s difficult to oppose with any real justification. Short prices about any player on an unknown quantity of a track such is this is off-putting though and for the same reason I’m reluctantly leaving Matt Wallace out of this week’s team. The Englishman is clearly very close to another win having missed out narrowly at Hillside and in Germany, however that intense focus of his has appeared to be spilling over of late and perhaps the pressure he’s putting on himself needs to be tapered back a touch. Fleetwood, Lowry and Oosthuizen all deserve respect, however I’m starting my team this week with a talented South African who’s surely on the cusp of his first win a this level.

One of the European Tour maidens who seems most likely to make a breakthrough is Erik Van Rooyen and his time has to come soon. The 29 year-old has victories on the Sunshine Tour (Eye of Africa PGA Championship, 2017) and the Challenge Tour (Hainan Open, 2017) however as yet that golden opportunity hasn’t been converted at the top level of European Tour golf. 86th in the world isn’t to be sniffed at though for a non-winner and that’s testament to some of the competitive golf he’s been playing over the past 18 months or so, some of which has been at a decent level to boot.

Runner-up finishes in Qatar and Morocco this season have been the closest that the South African has got thus far to that elusive victory, however it’s been his performances in the higher-profile events that have caught the eye. 8th at the US PGA Championship in May ranks as Erik’s best finish in a Major Championship, yet it was his performance at last year’s Open Championship that alerted the wider golfing audience to his ability and his potential fit with links golf. 2nd after day 1 at Carnoustie and 6th heading into the weekend, Van Rooyen eventually dropped down to 17th by the end of Sunday but his card had been marked by that point, particularly as he’d led this event by 4 strokes a fortnight before heading into the final day, before limping home in 74 strokes. A year’s more experience under his belt since that point in time and with his long game in great shape – he ranked 2nd for both Total Driving and Ball-Striking at the PGA Tour’s Canadian Open last month and topped the GIR stats on his last start in Germany – I can see him seriously contending for the win here this week. Result: MC

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Jorge Campillo 1pt EW 66/1 (7EW, 1/5) with Betfred

After more than 250 attempts as a professional since he graduated from the amateur ranks in 2008, Jorge Campillo finally got over the line at the Trophee Hassan II at the end of April to secure a well-deserved and emotional victory. If a player keeps knocking on the door loud enough then eventually it has to open and nobody could be surprised that he eventually held off Erik Van Rooyen, Julian Suri and Sean Crocker in Morocco having already finished runner-up twice in Oman and Qatar earlier this year as well as 3rd in his previous start in India. While the adrenalin was high, he had the chance to immediately follow up that win with another in China the week afterwards, leading from the start and sitting in 2nd heading into the final day, however he eventually had to settle for 3rd behind Mikko Korhonen. The inevitable missed cuts followed at the US PGA Championship and in Denmark, however after a month off to get used to his new status as a European Tour winner, he showed some sparks of life last week at Valderrama, eventually finishing 15th after a slow start.

7 attempts at the Irish Open have shown a steady progression with finishes of 44/32/19/3 interspersed with 3 weekends off and that final effort at Ballyliffin 12 months ago gives some indication that he could hit the ground running here this week. Those two runner-up finishes I mentioned prior to his win in Oman and Qatar both hold a little relevance to this week’s test in terms of their course set-up and similar links can be drawn to decent 2018 finishes in Oman, France and Holland where he was 15th or better each time. What we’ve seen from last season and this is that the 33 year-old can maintain contending form when he finds it and if last week is an indication of another rise in his stock, then we should be happy to support him at the price on offer. Result: T7

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Matthew Southgate 1pt EW 125/1 (7EW, 1/5) with Betfred

Links golf and Matthew Southgate are a match made in heaven and a return to his favourite style of golf could well see the Southend man bounce back from a pair of missed cuts and rekindle the kind of form that saw him finish inside the top 10 on his two previous starts. By his own estimation, his game has been coming around from some time now and those efforts in Denmark and Belgium are the rewards for his labour, however the big prize for the Englishman would be to secure a spot at Royal Portrush later this month.

Southgate is one of the handful of players who’s tackling Final Qualifying on Tuesday and although that could be seen as a negative in terms of his preparation for this, it has to be noted that he followed exactly the same path in 2017 after winning Final Qualifying at Royal Cinque Ports by three strokes then finishing 2nd behind Jon Rahm at Portstewart, so can clearly maintain focus and form even after a gruelling 36 holes. Southgate also finished 4th at the 2016 Irish Open and his Open Championship form is excellent having finished 12th in 2016 and 6th in 2017 – links golf is undoubtedly his best suit and even if he doesn’t manage to make it through qualifying on Tuesday. Result: MC

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Matthieu Pavon 1pt EW 200/1 (8EW, 1/5) with Betfair

I’ll complete my outright selections with another Tour maiden at a long price, Matthieu Pavon. The Frenchman’s best finish on the European Tour came at Dundonald Links back in 2017 when his 3rd place finish earned him his debut at the Open Championship and although his Royal Birkdale effort ended in a missed cut, he clearly took something out of the experience and played a far more prominent role in his next Major start at the 2018 US Open, sitting 6th after day 1 and eventually finishing a creditable 25th.

The 26 year-old’s best finish of 2018 was in the Irish Open where he led to halfway before gradually drifting back to 10th position, however he approaches this week in far better immediate form having finished 10th at the BMW International Open and 23rd at the Andalucia Masters over the past fortnight. In both cases Pavon sat in 6th position heading into the final day and in both cases he fell away on the Sunday – perhaps it will be 3rd time lucky this week at a tasty price. Individual elements of his game have been working nicely in recent times – he led the field for Scrambling in Germany and was 5th for Driving Accuracy last week at Valderrama – and with the lure of an Open Championship spot here this week, perhaps we’ll see another decent links performance from the Toulouse man. Result: MC

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First Round Leader Market

Bradley Dredge 1pt EW 125/1 (8EW, 1/5) First Round Leader with Boylesports

With a fairly flat day forecast on Thursday, I suspect that the First Round Leader (FRL) could come from pretty much any part of the draw and to that end I’m happy to take a chance on Bradley Dredge who’s a perennial fast starter and slow finisher.

Aside from his two European Tour wins in Madeira and the Swiss Alps, much of his best work as a professional has come in the UK and Ireland and his Irish Open record contains two runner-up finishes (2007 and 2016) plus a further 4 top-10 finishes over the year. Two top-6 positions after the first day over those same events is a fair ratio to spark a bit of FRL interest and given that in his last 7 starts he’s sat 3rd and 7th after day 1 in what’s been an otherwise indifferent (if I’m being polite) stretch of form. Opening rounds of 67 and 71 last week at Valderrama had the 45 year-old sitting 2nd heading into the weekend and although he quickly sank down the leaderboard over the weekend, there’s enough of a spark there to justify taking a chance on the Welshman in a market that he tends to oblige in once a year, give or take. Result: Lose

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Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 07:55BST 2.7.19 but naturally subject to fluctuation.