An Open marriage made in heaven: How Rory McIlroy has restored Irish Open lustre
Host Rory McIlroy has restored Irish event's lustre as K Club's arboreal splendour awaits
Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30
It will be a lot like old times. Indeed a quality field playing for a quality purse at a quality venue should make for quite a golfing occasion when the €4m Dubai Duty Free Irish Open gets under way on the 7,350-yard Palmer Course at The K Club on Thursday.
A key element is unquestionably Rory McIlroy's promotion of the event through his foundation. And the very notion of classifying it as "a big week" in his schedule alongside the prestigious Players Championship this weekend speaks volumes for his commitment to his home showpiece.
As he put it: "I remember back in September 2006, heading to Holywood Golf Club at about 5.30 in the morning and getting on a bus bound for the Ryder Cup. Our target must be to recreate such happenings."
The presence of himself and reigning US Masters champion Danny Willet should do much to achieve that objective. Double Major-winner Martin Kaymer will also be there, along with France's Victor Dubuisson and the gifted Spaniard, Rafa Cabrera-Bello.
This, of course, is the 10th anniversary of the Ryder Cup at The K Club and the silver jubilee of the venue's launch in 1991.
It also marks the return of a European tournament to the Palmer Course for the first time since Kenneth Ferrie's surprise victory in the Smurfit Kappa European Open of 2005. Though it continued for a further two years, those stagings were on the Smurfit Course, where Colin Montgomerie was the last champion in 2007.
Among 21 Irish challengers, Padraig Harrington will be returning to the scene of his professional debut in September 1995. It was only four weeks past his 24th birthday and a fortnight after he had contributed prominently to Britain and Ireland's Walker Cup triumph at Royal Porthcawl.
A planned practice round over the Palmer Course on the Tuesday with long-time friend Paul McGinley was transformed into a really memorable experience when the pair found Bernhard Langer waiting for them on the first tee. As it happened, the celebrated German went on to take the European Open title after a play-off and would later become a hugely influential role model in Harrington's tournament career.
By Wednesday, however, the mood had changed when Harrington learned that while his 60-degree Ping wedge was perfectly acceptable in amateur events, its square grooves made it illegal on the European Tour at that time. So it was that he embarked on a desperate search for a suitable replacement which was supplied, ultimately, by Headfort professional Brendan McGovern.
As a happy coincidence, McGovern is in this week's field among the qualifiers from the Irish Region's order of merit, led by Clontarf's professional Eamonn Brady.
There are also invitations for Peter Lawrie, who is attempting to regain European Tour status, and for elite amateurs Jack Hume, John Ross Galbraith and last weekend's Irish Amateur Open champion, Colm Campbell.
All will be facing a challenge considerably different from that which the Palmer Course presented in the Ryder Cup and in preceding events. As greens superintendent Gerry Byrne explained: "There is 10 years of additional growth on trees which were planted in the mid-1990s. They're now fully mature and will determine the degree of difficulty for shots hit off-line.
"The rough itself is not especially penal. In fact, we're cutting it at around 85 millimetres, which is slightly lower than normal. And the fairways are quite generous, while the greens will be running at around 11.5 on the Stimpmeter. The trees, however, are now filling their intended role in how the course should be played."
It will be recalled that Byrne produced something akin to a miracle in having the course playable throughout the Ryder Cup, despite appalling weather. Now, happily, the challenge is a lot less daunting. "I would rate the current condition of the course at nine out of 10," he added. "This is due largely to the rain and heat we got last week, which was a really welcome change from what had been an extended cold snap. In fact, I couldn't be happier."
The strategic significance of the trees is certain to command McIlroy's attention during practice rounds over the coming days. After a run of missed cuts in the Irish Open you get the feeling that he will be especially anxious not to allow the various demands on his time this week to militate against a strong performance this time around.
"Hit is straight and hard and you're likely to score low," was how Byrne summarised the challenge. Recent performances have emphasised for McIlroy, however, the additional importance of prudent shot-making. "Of the nine events I've played so far this year, I think I have six top-10s, which hasn't been too bad," he said, going into this weekend's Players Championship. "But there are no wins in there; I haven't converted any of the opportunities I've had."
By way of explanation, he went on: "It's been frustrating, especially since I feel like I've played some really good golf in this stretch. There's just been too many mistakes. I mean I led the field again last week in birdies at Quail Hollow. And I was also up there at Augusta in terms of birdies.
"There's been too many lost shots, too many soft bogeys. I know I'm playing good enough to post a lot of red numbers, so I just need to tidy up everything else. Last week in Charlotte [at Quail Hollow], I made a couple of doubles by just trying to take on a little bit too much. Like in the third round on the ninth hole. I'm trying to get it up over a tree with an eight-iron where, if I hit a wedge, maybe leave it 20 yards short of the green, I have a good opportunity to get up and down and make par.
"Instead, I'm trying to hit eight-iron and get it on the green. I'm taking on too much sometimes, because I believe that I can. I believe that I have the ability to pull off these shots, but sometimes you need to just pull the reins a little bit and say, okay, just get it back into play, try to get it up and down and limit the mistakes.
"They're more mental errors than anything else. The tendency for me is to keep trying to make birdies and push, and then all of a sudden if you get too aggressive on a hole, you make another bogey, and it sort of compounds itself. It's just a matter of trying to curb my enthusiasm a little bit and play the right shot at the right time."
Which reminds me of the quality which, in Tom Watson's view, made Jack Nicklaus an incomparable champion. "I've seen some great swingers; far better swingers than I could ever have hoped to be," he said. "But they didn't seem to have the talent to negotiate their way around a golf course. Nicklaus was the best at it that I've ever seen. By far the best . . ."
The suspicion is that with the Bear's course-management skills, McIlroy would be virtually unbeatable.
Meanwhile, Kaymer will be experiencing the Palmer Course for the first time, though he played in the 2007 European Open on the Smurfit stretch. No doubt with the Olympics and the Ryder Cup in mind, the German said: "It's going to be a big summer for a lot of players, and I'll be looking to get off to the perfect start at the Irish Open. The Irish people love their golf and really get behind the players, so it should make for a great atmosphere, especially with such a strong field."
Indeed. And none comes stronger on current form than Willett, who will be the first reigning Masters champion to compete in the Irish Open since Jose-Maria Olazabal in 1994. His involvement also evokes memories of the great Seve Ballesteros who, having captured a second Masters title in April 1983, became Irish Open champion at Royal Dublin four months later.
For his first European tournament since his remarkable triumph, Willett will be welcomed not only for that closing 67 at Augusta, but as a respected visitor to these shores, from a Walker Cup appearance at Royal Co Down in 2007 to a share of sixth place behind Soren Kjeldsen in last year's Irish Open at the same venue. "It's a great event," he said. "What Rory has done represents a magnificent job for the European Tour and golf in Ireland in general. I think with the field we've got, it's going to be a brilliant tournament."
There was a time when my generation wondered when an Irishman might eventually step forward to repeat the home victory by John O'Leary in 1982. And typically Harrington showed the way at Adare Manor during this month in 2007 before going on to do the same for his countrymen in the Open Championship later that summer.
Now, buoyed with that confidence, there are possibly four or five of them who could win next weekend. And if he is duly respectful of The K Club's arboreal splendour, McIlroy himself could add the crowning glory to an event he has revitalised so admirably.
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