Fleetwood can take the Port by storm in Irish Open
IN an interview with BBC Northern Ireland on Monday, Rory McIlroy voiced the opinion that this week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open “could be the best one ever”.
As the host of the event McIlroy is duty-bound to talk it up, but there is no getting away from the fact that the field assembled at Portstewart is as good as anything seen in the Irish Open’s long and distinguished history.
The Holywood man’s influence has been key to that, convincing world stars like Hideki Matsuyama, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose to make a detour to the county Derry coast, while the fact the event has been moved to a links layout at the start of July has hardly hurt.
The leading lights in attendance will have the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale at the back of their minds, but they would be well advised to keep their focus on the task at hand from tomorrow, not least with a $7m prize fund on offer as the Irish Open is now one of the European Tour’s elite Rolex Series tournaments.
That kind of money will grab the full attention of even the most successful players in the field, and so too should the Strand Course, which is a classic links and will provide a very decent test over the next four days.
There can be few more aesthetically pleasing layouts in the world, with the front nine winding through sand dunes and offering opportunities for birdies and card-wrecking disasters in equal measure.
The back nine is a bit flatter and might appear easier, but any lapses in concentration will be punished.
Like any links event, the weather will play a part, with showers and light winds over the first couple of days expected to give way to drier conditions but stronger winds by the weekend.
All-in-all, everything that you’d expect from a trip to the seaside in Ireland should be thrown into the mix, and the player most capable of adapting to the differing conditions will emerge on top.
McIlroy is the jolly to retain the title he won last year at the K Club, with Paddy Power offering a best price of 7/1.
It has been a frustrating season with injury so far for the Holywood star, but all of that would fade away should he successfully defend this one so close to home.
He obviously has a chance, and the fact he will play the first two rounds in the stellar company of Matsuyama and Rahm in front of huge galleries should inspire him.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he built on the momentum of a fine closing round at the Travelers Championship in Connecticut 10 days ago, and he has more course knowledge than everyone in the field, with the possible exception of Graeme McDowell.
However, with the demands that come from being host and defending champion, the price might just be a touch on the short side and I’m prepared to look elsewhere, safe in the knowledge that a McIlroy victory would be a brilliant outcome for the event itself.
Matsuyama was second at the US Open last time out and a repeat of that form would have him well in this, so he will have fans at 11/1, while Rahm dug deep to finish 10th in France on Sunday and has the class to compete anywhere, although his links experience is limited enough.
Rose will also have followers, but at the top of the market I can’t get way from Tommy Fleetwood at 16/1 (Boylesports), even though I’ve tried.
The Englishman won the Open de France on Sunday, and it is very hard to go
back-to-back, but the argument could be made that he is the form man in the field this week and his price should be shorter.
Fleetwood is riding the crest of a wave, with his French win taking him top of the Race to Dubai and up to 15th in the world rankings.
His consistency in recent times is another reason to be optimistic, with that win in Paris the fourth top-six he has recorded in his last five outings.
One negative is that he missed his next two cuts after winning in Abu Dhabi at the start of the season, but a move to links terrain should maintain his interest.
Fleetwood grew up playing links courses like Birkdale, and that has shown at the Alfred Dunhill in Scotland, where he has been no worse than 15th in the last four years, including a second in 2014.
He has all the tools to go well at Portstewart this week and as long a fatigue doesn’t get the better of him, Fleetwood has to be backed at 16/1, each-way at the very least.
Elsewhere, I’ll also suggest punts on Rafa Cabrera-Bello (30/1, Paddy Power) and Thorbjorn Olesen (33/1 generally).
Cabrera-Bello (doesn’t win as much as he should, but he is the epitome of consistency, racking up high finishes with alarming regularity.
The latest of those came in the FedEx St Jude Classic in American a month ago, when he was fourth, and while he then had quiet enough weeks at the US Open and the BMW International in Germany, he will come to Ireland fresh after taking last week off.
He also has a fine links pedigree, notably in the north of Ireland.
The Spaniard was second to Jamie Donaldson at Royal Portrush in 2012 and a close-up fourth when Soren Kjeldsen won at Royal County Down two years ago, with both renewals seeing their fair share of poor weather.
Rafa can handle anything the Irish weather has to throw at him and he should go well at a very decent price.
Olesen would be following in the footsteps of his fellow Dane Kjeldsen should he capture the Irish Open this week, and he is more than capable of doing just that.
He is a four-time winner on the European Tour, with all of those victories coming on seaside courses, in Sicily, Australia, Turkey and Scotland.
His success in the Alfred Dunhill in 2015 – he was also second there in 2012 – is most relevant with this week in mind as he has a proven links game, while his World Cup success alongside Kjeldsen on the sandbelts of Melbourne last term should also be noted.
Olesen flew through the field with a closing 65 in France on Sunday to claim a share of third so his form is also good.
Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be the Irish Open without an Irish contender, and although McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell will take the bulk of the patriotic money, Paul Dunne and Padraig Harrington might just offer the value.
Like Olesen, Dunne finished with a 65 in France at the weekend to finish 13th which gives him momentum, while he is looking increasingly at home on tour, having finished second in the Trophee Hassan in Morocco in April.
That result assured Dunne of his card for next term and he can be more relaxed for the rest of the campaign. That is never a bad thing, while he has proven links pedigree, having led the Open at St Andrews after 54 holes two years ago.
He’s worth an each-way flutter at 60s with Sky Bet, while the 9/1 offered by Ladbrokes about Dunne being top Irishman is also appealing.
At the other end of the experience spectrum is Harrington, who at the age of 45 could be forgiven for coasting a bit.
That’s not the Dubliner’s way, however, and he will put everything into making a tilt at the title this week.
And when it comes to links golf, nobody compares to Harrington, a double Open champion and a two-time Alfred Dunhill winner.
He’s not the player he was, but the Dubliner has won decent events in each of the last two seasons, most recently in Portugal last October, and will never back off if he’s in the hunt.
He also played some decent stuff to share 17th at the Travelers a couple of weeks ago and a return to links golf might just inspire better, so Harrington has to be worth a small bet at 66/1 and at 10/1 in the top Irishman market.