The European Tour heads to Northern Ireland this week for The Irish Open to be contested over the magnificent links at Royal Portrush. England’s Simon Dyson is the defending champion.

The tournament has received incredible support and, for the first time in European Tour history, tickets for Saturday and Sunday have sold out. This has never happened before in a regular tour event.

“We are preparing for a crowd around the 100,000 mark for the week of the Championship, and with a particularly large spectator audience expected for the weekend, we felt it prudent to stop selling tickets for Saturday and Sunday,” said Irish Open Championship Director Antonia Beggs.

Irish golf has been riding the crest of a wave over the last few years and this has been greeted with a huge level of public interest in the sport across Ireland and Northern Ireland. There’s an impressive line-up of home players in the event this year.

The 2010 and 2011 US open champions, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy will tee it up, as will 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke and three-time Major winner Padraig Harrington. The newly crowned Amateur champion Alan Dunbar is on the start sheet, together with Paul McGinley, Shane Lowry, Michael Hoey and Peter Lawrie, amongst many other Irish players.

A number of other star names have made the journey to County Antrim this week – Keegan Bradley is over from the USA and there are five more Major champions in the field – Paul Lawrie, John Daly, Jose Maria Olazabal, Michael Campbell and Rich Beem.

The only course in Ireland to have hosted the Open Championship, the Dunluce course at Portrush presents a stern test of links golf across a wonderful swathe of duneland. Designed by the famed course architect Harry Colt, it’s one of the best courses in the UK and Ireland – it was ranked 15th in Golf Monthly’s most recent top-100 listing.

The Irish Open was first contested in 1927 and has produced some famous champions over the years. Bobby Locke, Bernard Gallacher, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernard Langer and Colin Montgomerie have all been champions. In last year’s event at Killarney in County Kerry Simon Dyson took the title by a single shot over Richard Green of Australia.

Venue: Royal Portrush GC, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Date: Jun 28 – Jul 1
Course stats: par 72, 7,143 yards
Purse: €2,000,000
Defending Champion: Simon Dyson (-15)

TV Coverage:
Thursday 28 – Live on Sky Sports 1 from 10am
Friday 29 – Live on Sky Sports 2 from 10am
Saturday 30 – Live on Sky Sports 1 from 1.30pm
Sunday 1 – Live on Sky Sports 2 from 12.30pm

Player Watch:

Graeme McDowell – This is McDowell’s home course so if anyone knows how to successfully negotiate the Dunluce Links, it’s the 2010 US Open champion. He comes into this event off the back of a superb performance in this year’s US Open, where he finished second.

Padraig Harrington – Fourth in the US Open and fresh off a good performance last week in the Travelers Championship, Harrington looks to be coming back onto his Major-winning game. This course will suit his battling and strategic style of playing.

Michael Hoey – The Northern Irishman pops up out of relative obscurity every so often to secure a win on the European Tour. He enjoyed success over links courses as an amateur and was winner of last year’s Dunhill Links. He’s not exactly a dark horse but has been hovering under the radar in the build up to this event – look for him to pull off something special.

Key hole:
14th. “Calamity” A long and intimidating par-3 played over a huge ravine. No bunkers to contend with but difficult slopes make par a very good score on this one.

Skills required: Getting to grips with the links. Players who do well in windy conditions and can master the running game will come to the fore this week. Look towards players with a track record in the Open Championship.

Where next?
PGA Tour –
AT&T National preview