Paul Williams

Paul Williams' Irish Open Tips 2021

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Viktor Hovland justified favouritism last week in Germany to take the BMW International title and his first success on the European Tour. That win reinforced the Norwegian’s claim for a maiden Ryder Cup start later this year, whereas our biggest hope last week Bernd Wiesberger trod water after such a promising start under the watchful eye of Captain Padraig Harrington, eventually finishing in a 7-way tie for 5th place after missing a 5-footer on the last.

On to this week and the run-up to the Open Championship starts in earnest as the European Tour ventures to Ireland, before heading to the Renaissance Club in Scotland next week for something a little more linksy ahead of the main event itself.

Mount Juliet was originally pencilled in to host last year’s Irish Open before the pandemic turned everything on its head, meaning that Galgorm Castle was drafted in as a late replacement when the 2020 event was rescheduled in the autumn. Like last year, the event’s Rolex Series status is no longer, however an improved prize fund awaits the players nevertheless and with that we have an improvement in quality over last September’s affair.

With this being parkland golf though as opposed to links, the star-studded fields that we’ve seen in some recent ‘Links Swing’ events is sadly absent this week. Rory McIlroy is here nevertheless and understandably heads the field at a best price of 11/2 at the time of writing. Shane Lowry, Tommy Fleetwood, Martin Kaymer, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Robert MacIntyre complete the top 6 in the betting, rating between 12/1 to 25/1 respectively.

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Course Overview. Mount Juliet is a 7,250 yard, par 72 that’s hosting its first Irish Open since 1993-95 when Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Sam Torrance won here at -12, -13 and -11 respectively.

A little more recently, the parkland track also hosted the 2002 and 2004 WGC American Express Championships won by Tiger Woods (results here) and Ernie Els (results here) at -25 and -18 respectively.

The Jack Nicklaus design is a tree-lined affair with fairly generous fairways and Bentgrass greens that can reach 12 on the stimpmeter. Water is in play on half of the holes and the pair of 9s are of virtually identical length and composition with 2 par-3s, 5 par-4s and 2 par-5s on each side.

The closing stretch should add some good variance to players’ rounds as the par-4 16th and 18th holes ranked 3rd and 1st for difficulty the last time we saw the track in 2004, whereas the par-5 17th was the easiest hole on the course to offer a little respite.

The par-5 5th and 10th holes are also good birdie opportunities, as is the short par-4 1st, however the 603 yard par-5 8th hole is no pushover and only just played under its par back in 2004.

irish open tips

Tournament Stats. We’ve published some key statistics for this week’s event that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well in this event, although as previously noted this week’s venue hasn’t been used for the Irish Open since 1995: Current Form | Event Form | First Round Leader Stats | Combined Event Stats

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

Event Winners. 2020: John Catlin, 40/1; 2019: John Rahm, 8/1; 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 for the past 10 years click here.

Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the area is here.

Southern Ireland will be enjoying some pleasant sunny spells this week with temperatures reaching the low 70s Fahrenheit, accompanied by light winds. Scoring conditions should be pretty perfect with the chance of an occasional shower.

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:

  • 2020: John Catlin. 279 yards (55th), 62.5% fairways (6th), 72.2% greens in regulation (6th), 80% scrambling (2nd), 1.78 putts per GIR (26th).
  • 2019: Jon Rahm. 309 yards (4th), 60.7% fairways (3rd), 73.6% greens in regulation (17th), 52.6% scrambling (50th), 1.65 putts per GIR (8th).
  • 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 5 Irish Opens have been won with GIR ranks of 6th, 17th, 1st, 4th and 1st and winning scores of Catlin (-10), Rahm (-16), Knox (-14), Rahm (-24) and McIlroy (-12), and unless conditions seriously deteriorate in these types of events, maximising greens hit is never a bad strategy.

Although held 17 and 19 years ago respectively, players stats were captured for the two WGCs held here at Mount Juliet, summarised as follows for the two winners:

  • 2004: Ernie Els. 278 yards (2nd), 57.1% fairways (62nd), 72.2% greens in regulation (11th), 85% scrambling (1st), 1.65 putts per GIR (1st).
  • 2002: Tiger Woods. 282 yards (21st), 73.2% fairways (24th), 83.3% greens in regulation (3rd), 91.7% scrambling (1st), 1.58 putts per GIR (6th).

Short game and putting was where both Els and Woods excelled on their way to victory and that theme follows for a number of their closest contenders each year. Els made 3 bogeys in total on his way to victory and Woods just 1, which would suggest that keeping your card clean is both possible and essential to compiling a score around here.

Incoming Form: There are positives to pick out of the recent form of our past 9 Irish Open champions and none arrived in what you’d class as poor form.

All 9 had recorded a top-10 finish in their previous 7 outings and all had made the weekend on their previous start, with our last three winners John Catlin, Jon Rahm and Russell Knox each having finished first or second in one of their previous two starts.

A similar trend continues with Dyson (2011) and Fisher (2010), broken eventually by the shock win from Shane Lowry as an amateur in 2009:

  • 2020, John Catlin: 8/43/51/6/MC/25/1/8
  • 2019, Jon Rahm: 12/6/24/9/MC/MC/3/2
  • 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: 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. Russell Knox continued that trend in 2018 before Rahm tasted victory for a second time in this event the year after.

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.

John Catlin’s win at Galgorm Castle last year, which was a new course to many of the field, was on his Irish Open debut:

  • 2020, John Catlin: Debut
  • 2019, Jon Rahm: 1/4
  • 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

The move back to Mount Juliet for the Irish Open after a break of getting on for 3 decades gives us little clues, however slightly more recent results from the WGC American Express events held here in scoreable conditions would suggest that players who can maximise their score through their performance on and around the greens may be favoured.

A parkland setup renders a lot of the more recent links Irish Open results as interesting fact rather than useful research, however with plenty of comparable courses and results across Great Britain and Ireland to study, there should still be some good pointers out there for this week.

For me, birdie maximisation or bogey minimisation could be equally effective in reaching what I expect to be a fairly low winning total with favourable conditions on the cards. Parkland form in Great Britain and Ireland over the years would seem the most logical starting point and a preference for Bentgrass greens may be the icing on the cake.

The final consideration for this week is Open Championship qualifying, with 3 places up for grabs from this week’s Irish Open (you can check those already exempt here), plus there’s Final Qualifying happening across 4 sites on Tuesday – full draw here.

My selections are as follows:

Sam Horsfield 2pts EW 33/1 (6EW, 1/5) with Unibet

Two former Irish Open champions, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, head this week’s betting, however I’m banking on the pair of them being upstaged by Englishman Sam Horsfield who looks to be gearing up for another big summer having won twice in quick succession a little under 12 months ago.

McIlroy is the clear favourite at around the 5/1 mark, give or take, and deservedly so on paper given that he’s by far the highest ranked player in the field at 10th in the OWGR, has a recent enough PGA Tour victory to his name at Quail Hollow, plus finished 7th at the Torrey Pines-hosted US Open on his last outing.

Yet, for me, doubts remain as he continues to work on his game under the tutelage of Pete Cowen. Undoubtedly better in terms of long game at the US Open, it was his putter that uncharacteristically earned him that aforementioned win at the Wells Fargo Championship and he’ll likely need the putter to be at least warm if not hot here this week to succeed, and that’s not always a given with Rory. 60th for SG Putting at Torrey is a reminder that you can’t always bank on his flat stick being compliant.

4th at the US PGA Championship and 6th at the Memorial had punters clamouring to back Shane Lowry at Torrey Pines on what was also his last outing, however 70th out of the 71 players to make the cut in terms of SG Putting also flashes warning signs for a bet on the (still) reigning Open Champion, despite his obvious class compared to much of this field.

Tommy Fleetwood has been off the boil for a while now, whereas Martin Kaymer makes more appeal having secured another runner-up finish last week as he looks to get the win that could re-open the floodgates on a career that’s still got plenty of mileage left in it given his age and fitness.

Birdie-making and the ability to go low could well be the currency this week on a track that showed its susceptibility in its WGC days when conditions were favourable, and Sam Horsfield’s leading of the Birdie Average stats on the European Tour for the season is just one of a series of eye-catching numbers that may serve him well this week.

24th for Bogey Avoidance puts him close to the top decile on Tour and would appear to be another good indicator for this week going on those Amex events of days gone by and 22nd, 5th and 18th for Par-3, Par-4 and Par-5 Scoring respectively suggests that he’s capable of making birdie on any type of hole.

49th, 25th and then 5th over his past 3 starts shows progression, and save for a Friday 77 he’d have surely pushed Viktor Hovland very close last week with rounds of 64, 66 and 68 flanking that effort.

The 24 year-old’s best form has come in short, sharp bursts since lockdown with 10/1/MC/1 recorded over a 4-event stretch last summer and 8/3/15/4 in March and April of this year, so it’s reasonable to infer that last week’s effort could easily be followed up with similar or better. A course that few have tournament experience of also acts as somewhat of a leveller for those with less career mileage under their belts and Mount Juliet should remind him of many a parkland track that he’s played back home during his formative golfing years. RESULT: WD

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Andy Sullivan 2pts EW 33/1 (8EW, 1/5) with Coral

Another player who finished in the log-jam for 5th place last week in Germany who should enjoy the confines of Mount Juliet and some low scoring is Andy Sullivan.

Rounds of 68/69/69/69 in Munich was the antithesis of the up and down week I’ve described above with Sullivan’s compatriot Sam Horsfield, yet both got to 13-under in equally impressive fashion. Andy’s performance on and around the greens did the bulk of the work last week, and if he can find one or two more putts on his favoured Bentgrass greens this week then I think he can go close.

Like Horsfield, Sullivan was also a winner across the Irish Sea in England last summer, securing a stunning 7-shot victory at 27-under par at Hanbury Manor to rubber-stamp his liking for scoreable, parkland affairs. A 9-stroke victory before that at Vilamoura – another Bentgrass-based assignment – tells us that Andy can both go low when on his game and dominate an event that’s low-scoring.

More evidence of that low-scoring ability was evident in Dubai in December when he opened with a 61 and looked every part the winner until late into the event, however with just 1 missed cut since then he’s also added a level of consistency to his game of late which has kept the pay cheques flowing.

6th, 6th and 2nd from his last five attempts at this title suggest that he’s comfortable in both the North and South of Ireland, albeit it on more links-like assignments for those efforts; 3rd at Wentworth last autumn and 6th at The Belfry more recently are useful indicators though a little closer to his home and he should like what he sees here on his Mount Juliet debut. RESULT: T12

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Adrian Otaegui 1pt EW 80/1 (8EW, 1/5) with Paddy Power

A little further down the list, Joost Luiten was tempting given that his iron game looks back on track after a brief health scare, however he’s been tinkering with his putting of late and there’s no guarantee that he’ll have the solution here this week. Instead, at a similar price, I’m backing Adrian Otaegui who’s stepped up a level recently with his approach play and could feature if he putts well this week.

I noted in the preamble that each of the past 3 Irish Open winners arrived at that week’s venue with either a win or a runner-up finish to their name over the previous 2 starts, and if that trend is to continue for a fourth consecutive renewal then the Spaniard is part of an elite club here this week containing himself, Martin Kaymer, Thomas Detry and Jonathan Caldwell.

The case for Otaegui has a little more depth than a mere form trend that could evaporate quickly this week should one of that quartet not prevail. For starters, that effort at the Scandinavian Mixed contained his best GIR performance for 2 years at 80.6% and he topped both SG Approach and SG Tee-to-Green. 9th and 6th on those two Strokes Gained measures last week in Germany on his way to 29th also encourages, even if the finish wasn’t anywhere near as lofty, and 6th and 8th for SG Around The Green for those events respectively translated into just 7 bogeys being made on both occasions which could be an equally viable route to success here this week.

Runner up, albeit by a distance, to Andy Sullivan at Hanbury Manor last August was positive form across the Irish Sea and he backed that up in Scotland a couple of months later with victory at the Scottish Championship and his first ‘regular’ European Tour title having previously won the Paul Lawrie Match Play and the Belgian Knockout. 62 to open and 63 to close that week tells us that he’s a streaky scorer and more recent low rounds of 64 in both Tenerife and Denmark suggest to me that he may well enjoy this week’s test.

Otaegui, like both Horsfield and Sullivan, will also be using this event as a chance to gain qualification into the Open Championship field with the top 3 finishers who aren’t already exempt earning themselves a start at Sandwich in just over a fortnight’s time. RESULT: T12

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Aaron Rai 1pt EW 125/1 (8EW, 1/5) with Paddy Power

Finally, I’m veering a little further away from birdie-making and more towards avoiding mistakes and I’m taking a chance on Aaron Rai whose price could be very wrong if the brief flashes of form we saw on his last start at the Scandinavian Mixed are an indication of an upswing in form.

4th for Bogey Avoidance in 2020 was the foundation of an excellent year where he secured his second European Tour title – at Rolex Series level no less – at the Scottish Open. 3rd at the Scottish Championship and 2nd in this corresponding fixture last year at Galgorm Castle paved the way for him breaking into the OWGR top 100 for the first time in his career and I, for one, expected to see a lot more of his this season.

2021 though hasn’t gone to plan for the Wolverhampton man. 18th at the WGC Workday Championship was a commendable effort, as was 25th at the Abu Dhabi Championship in excellent company. A pair of top-30 finishes at the tree-lined Karen CC also encourages a little for this week’s task, however aside from that it’s been pretty poor if truth be told.

28th of the men and 42nd overall at the Scandinavian Mixed may still not get your pulse racing, however scratch a little below the surface we see a SG-positive effort with the putter for the first time in 6 starts and 8th for SG Approach. The weakest part of his game was uncharacteristically from off the tee, which if anything is the most likely element that he’ll have been able to fix in the past fortnight or so ahead of this week’s event.

Rounds of 67 and 68 on Friday and Sunday respectively in Sweden were among the best rounds of the day for the men, and save for his Saturday 77 he would have been much closer to the lead on Sunday and much, much shorter here this week. RESULT: T12

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Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 17:00BST 28.6.21 but naturally subject to fluctuation.