As is always the case at this point in the golfing calendar, the European Tour assumes centre stage this week, with the Irish Open heralding the beginning of the Tour’s run into The Open Championship. The event itself mirrors the Open in the sense that it is not fixed to any one course, and is almost always played at a links-style course, with this week being no different as Ballyliffin Golf Club in County Donegal, the northern-most point of Northern Ireland, plays host for the first time.
The event always draws a strong field of European players looking to hone their games on the run-up to the Open and this is especially true now that the event is part of the Rolex Series, adding additional prize money and European Ryder Cup points to the mix. The likes of Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm – champions in the past two seasons – join Ryder Cup hopefuls Rafa Cabrera Bello, Matt Fitzpatrick, Thomas Pieters and Shane Lowry in the field as they look to play themselves on to Thomas Bjorn’s squad for the September showdown.
I wrote last week about the fact that these Rolex Series events to date have produced classy winners and the Open de France followed suit, with Alex Noren overcoming tricky conditions on Sunday to post a number and hold on for the win. That was Noren’s second victory in Rolex Series events and backs up the theory that the cream tends to rise to the top in these events with Rahm, McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Tommy Fleetwood, Cabrera Bello, Justin Rose, Brandon Grace, Tyrrell Hatton and Torbjorn Olesen rounding out the victories in the series to date.
Of those names, you could argue that only Olesen is a not true top line talent and even then that’s potentially harsh on a 28-year-old who has already clocked up five wins on the European Tour and recorded top 10 finishes in both the Masters and the Open in his career.
All this is a long-winded way of saying that we should expect class to tell in these events and probably not look to get to fancy when trying to find the winner.
Ballyliffin, given its location on the Atlantic coast, is very much your archetypical links track, with heavy rough and deep bunkers designed to penalise players who are wayward off the tee and with their approach shots. Although it has featured just once in a professional event – 2002’s North West of Ireland Open – the scoring that week gave an indication as to what can happen if the wind blows, with just five players breaking par for the week.
The wind is very much the key factor here, and with the west coast currently experience distinctly un-Irish weather, it is potentially going to play significantly easier this week so the winning score could be a great deal lower.
Again, this is likely to play into the hands of the game’s best players, as the lack of wind reduces the randomness and puts the onus back on talent.
The par 72 course stretches to 7462 yards and is slightly unusual for a par 72 in that it features only three par 3s and three par 5s. Par 4 play then will obviously be key, as will the ability to produce an exceptional tee to green performance, given the penalties that await those that miss the short stuff.
Given the typical links test, I am putting a lot of stock in previous form in links events and am slightly less inclined to favour players who have ordinarily been excellent in the wind, like Shane Lowry, given the benign conditions which the players appear set for this week.
Where’s the value this week?
With the above said, I have a very strong fancy for Jon Rahm this week, as he bids to go back to back as champion of this event. Listeners of the Matchbook Betting Podcast will know that I have a man-crush on the angry Spaniard but this pick is very much rooted firmly in his talent and profile for this week.
At Portstewart last year, Rahm blitzed the field recording a facile six-shot win without finding the need to break out of third gear.
He has won 3 of his past 14 starts worldwide, including his home Open de Espana, which was his third win in regulation European Tour events in just seven starts so he’s clearly a class above the pack.
He also traded odds on during the final round last week, before a triple bogey on the 12th – blamed on a bemused cameraman – knocked him down the field. In spite of this, he finished just two strokes behind Noren and looked in great form throughout the event. His tee-to-green game is world class and of the players in the field, only Rory could live with him at his best.
Given the winners of the Rolex Series events previously, I strongly expect a top class winner this week and believe that Rahm’s current form and love of the Irish links game makes him the strongest contender.
Given how strong a pick I believe Rahm to be this week, I have just one other player of interest, Irishman Paul Dunne. The diminutive Wicklow native will be a popular figure amongst the galleries this week and is very much a player on the rise in terms of where his career is headed, as demonstrated by his win at the British Masters last year. He followed that win with an impressive top 10 at the Dunhill Links, which confirmed a love of links golf that first came to evidence when he held the 54 hole lead at 2015 Open Championship as an amateur.
This year has seen him rack up four top 10 finishes in stroke play events, including a runner-up finish in the Open de Espana and a first PGA Tour top 10 at Houston Open, plus he secured a victory with playing partner Gavin Moynihan in the gimmicky Golf Sixes event last month.
The 25-year-old has the talent to be talked about in the same tones as those on the list of Rolex Series winners to date and a vociferous home crowd might just inspire him to get over the line once again this week.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make a late run for a captain’s pick in September and a win here would go a long way to securing such an opportunity.
- Jon Rahm – 3.5 points @ 8.2 (lay 3.5 points @ 2.50)
- Paul Dunne – 1 point @ 35 (lay 3 points @ 7.0)