Ireland loves its sporting heroes from George Best to Barry McGuigan and Rory McIlroy. Shane Lowry would make few people’s top 10 list of sporting champions from Ireland but he could get closer to that list by winning the Irish Open this week. The event is hosted by the Rory Foundation and McIlroy is the defending champion but his compatriot looks in better shape to win the tournament for the second time.
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The next three weeks on the European Tour are all about links golf. The Opens of Ireland, Scotland and Britain are all played on courses by the seaside. No player has ever won the three events in the same season and that is unlikely to happen. The mental demands of contending are such that back-to-back wins are rare. The Irish Open is a lucrative prize in its own right but many players will use the week to hone their game for the daddy of all Opens at Royal Birkdale in two weeks.
Links golf calls upon all the skills of a professional golfer. Courses generally have a number of dimensions so many skills are required for decent scoring. Wind is often a factor so finding fairways and greens is paramount. Fairways can be quite wide but hazards make accuracy from the tee an important factor. Greens on links courses are generally above average in size but certain areas make putting easier and other parts of the surfaces must be avoided as they are in three putt range.
The Irish Open is being played at Portstewart Golf Club north of the border. The course has towering dunes and has a classic links design. It is similar to Birkdale so will provide a good test and preparation in the context of the third major of the season. At 7,188 yards the course is average in length by modern standards but the hazards and wind compensate for any lack in length. A links specialist should win this week and Lowry excels on courses by the coast.
Lowry led the US Open by four shots ahead of the final round last season but slipped down the leader board in a championship won by Dustin Johnson. For three days Lowry looked the most likely winner of the most physically and demanding championship of the season but could not get the job done on Saturday. However, he proved he could compete at the highest level and he must beat a semi-major championship type field this week.
Hideki Matsuyama, the world number two, plays in his first regular European Tour event and Jon Rahm plays the week after finishing tenth in his debut tour event in France last week. Tommy Fleetwood is playing out of his skin and won the Open de France so is looking to achieve one of those rare successive wins. Justin Rose is a class act but he may be using this week to get ready for the Open which he would probably swap for 10 Irish versions. In any case Lowry is up against a superb field.
When McIlroy won his 13th European Tour event in the Irish Open last year he became the first home winner since Lowry won as an amateur in 2009. At that point he looked like a potential world beater but he has not quite delivered. However, Lowry has had a decent professional career to date. He won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in 2015 and had that near miss in the US Open last year. Lowry has won twice on the European Tour and his due another win.
Only three amateurs have won a European Tour event so it’s a rarity but it was even more special for an Irish amateur to win the Irish Open. Every player would like to win their national Open and Lowry now has that on his CV. A second win would make him the first player in the history of European golf to win the same tournament as un unpaid player and pro. Portstewart is a good fit for Lowry’s game and he loves the demands of links golf.
There are wonderful links courses in Ireland, Scotland and England as we will see over the next three weeks. Lowry could begin a run of home winners. We are struggling to find a Scottish born contender for the Scottish Open but Rose has a great chance of winning the British Open in Southport on the north west coast of England but links golf in Ireland has its week in the spotlight first.
Back next Thursday.