By Sean Goff | Sports reporter
The Irish Open tees off at Royal Portrush on Thursday with a strong home challenge at the Northern Ireland links course.
Previous US and British Open winners Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington lead the charge with in-form Peter Lawrie, veteran Paul McGinley and former Irish Open champion Shane Lowry competing for the £260k winner’s cheque.
World No. 2 McIlroy has blown hot and cold all year and has missed the cut in his last five events including the US Open. Bypasses the AT&T National at Congressional (where he won last year’s US Open by eight shots) in favour of a confidence booster at Royal Portrush where he once shot a 61 in the North of Ireland Amateur Open.
His world ranking and course experience entitle him to be favourite in Paddy Power’s online betting but needs to put his recent form behind him.
Graeme McDowell’s struggled last season after his 2010 US Open and Ryder Cup heroics. He’s bounced back to form this year with three runner-up finishes including one at the US Open. Now ranked 11th in the world, Gmac is one for any short-list and a leading contender to be Top Irish player despite the added pressure of playing in front of his home crowd.
Three-time Major winner Padraig Harrington’s form has taken a turn for the better since he parted company with long-time mentor Bob Torrance almost 12 months ago. Harrington has recorded two Top 10 finishes at the Masters and US Open in recent months and is gradually clawing his way back in to the game’s top 50. A good show here would clip another few notches of his World No. 69 ranking but the 40-year-old is playing his seventh tournament in eight weeks.
Reigning British Open champion Darren Clarke lives just up the road and will be keen to put on a show for the vocal home crowd. His emotional victory at Royal St George’s last year has prolonged his career when his form suggested a quick buggy ride to the Seniors Tour was where his future lay. The 43-year-old needs to reproduce last year’s heroics though to be in contention come Sunday.
Shane Lowry was the last home player to win the Irish Open when he popped up as an unconsidered amateur at Baltray in 2009. Some solid form last season propelled him up the Race for Dubai rankings but he has yet to sparkle this year after those exertions. Has slipped to 158th in the World rankings and needs to recapture his Baltray form if he is to figure here.
Peter Lawrie has been very consistent these past fwe months most notably in the when fourth at the BMW PGA at Wentworth. Has only the 2008 Spanish Open title to his name on Tour but could be a solid each-way option with six places up for grabs with Paddy Power.
Paul McGinley is enjoying a new lease of life with three Top 10 finishes in his last four outings. It’s a decade since the 45-year-old Dubliner sunk Europe’s winning putt at the Belfry but a loss of form and a troublesome knee injury ans seen him slip to 252th in the World rankings . Still retains some of his old ability but will need to get off to a good start to trouble those at the top of the market.
Reigning Irish Open champion Simon Dyson went on to win the KLM Dutch Open (for the third time) and hinted at a return to form when 12th behind Danny Willett at the BMW Open last week. Still struggling with a pelvic injury but Royal Portrush’s links challenge should suit his game as he captured the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews towards the end of last year too.