After a spell of playing second fiddle to prestigious PGA Tour events, this week’s European Tour offering deserves at least equal billing. Not only do we have a high-class field for the 3 Irish Open, but also a venue to rival the world’s very best at Baltray, Drogheda.
Probably like most British and Irish golf fans, I usually prefer to watch golf on links courses because they invariably produce exciting tournaments. Sawgrass was a rare exception where a stadium course provided the ultimate in golfing entertainment, but the appeal is similar. Spectators and gamblers alike want to see golf tournaments where there is serious potential for either birdies or double-bogeys on most holes. When scoring is volatile, the result is invariably a packed, regularly changing, leaderboard. With the exceptions of St Andrews and Hoylake, every other links course I’ve ever seen has rated highly on the ‘volatility’ index.
Furthermore, we know exactly what to expect on a links; that tee to green accuracy plus an ability to perform in windy conditions are imperative for success. The leaderboard at Baltray in 2004 reveals a predictable list of links candidates, even if they weren’t all amongst the favourites. Champion Brett Rumford was one of three Aussies in the top-10, all known for their ballstriking and prowess in windy, or firm, conditions. Ireland was represented by runner-up Padraig Harrington and 5th placed Paul McGinley, but its the outsiders in contention that best explain the trend. Former Open champion Sandy Lyle finished 11th, along with Open runner-up Gary Evans and Dunhill Links winner Stephen Gallacher.
It’s hard to imagine that there has ever been a greater likelihood of an Irish winner. In addition to home favourite and major specialist Harrington, Northern Ireland has never boasted such strength in depth. So strong that Darren Clarke now rates well below fellow countrymen RORY MCILROY and GRAEME MCDOWELL, and must be looking over his shoulder at the emerging Gareth Maybin and MICHAEL HOEY.
If the market had been priced six months ago, 6/1 would have been the maximum around for Harrington, but after a miserable run in the States, the reigning Open and PGA champion is available at double those odds. Seeing as Pod has repeatedly labelled this tournament as his most important outside the majors, he can hardly be written off, but he did confess at the weekend that it would be a few weeks until we see his peak.