Next stop Royal County Down, and the Rory McIlroy - 4.33 - hosted Dubai Duty Free Irish Open takes centre stage. It's a new venue again on the roster and we are in for a treat. We have a similar venue to Royal Portrush - host of the Irish Open in 2012 and it's a track McIlroy knows well; In fact, in numerous interviews the Northern Irishman has named Royal County Down as one of his favourites.
We will see a true links test and it may be worth a look at leaderboards such as the Alfred Dunhill Links, recent Open Championships, The Irish Open at Royal Portrush and other links style tests such as Kennemer, and coastal South African tracks - Durban CC in particular - for hints as to who may go well.
Personally I've had a good look at Himmerland GC in Denmark - host of the Made In Denmark event last year where links specialist Marc Warren was the last man standing in high winds. On an exposed track, undulating greens with run offs required superb shot making skills around them in gusty conditions. The eventual top 20 ended up a who's who of British links exponents, and a similar skill set will likely be required this week.
Rory has done a good job as tournament host and he's attracted some big names over to the Emerald Isle. Rickie Fowler - 13.00 - was here in 2007 when RCD hosted the Walker Cup and he is back for more after his recent Players Championship win. Ryder Cuppers Sergio Garcia - 15.00, Lee Westwood - 34.00 - and Martin Kaymer - 26.00 add to a top heavy market.
The course - Royal County Down
Ranked as Golf Digest's no. 1 course outside the US back in '07, Royal County Down is a stunning Harry Colt links venue in the backdrop of the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. Playing to a par 71 of 7,186 yards, expect the coastal winds to have a big part in proceedings this week. There will be a premium on keeping the ball in play off the tees with trouble right and left. Darren Clarke describes the course as having 6 or 7 "blind shots" where a high ball flight is required - not the norm for links golf. Bunkers will be penal, both in and around them as thick whispy grass lines the faces. Key at Royal county Down will be shot making - ala at the aforementioned Himmerland GC - around raised, firm undulating surfaces in the wind, so look to those with their short game in shape and who have all the shots for links golf.
Four from the pack
Personally I make Shane Lowry - 23.00 or 5.50 - 2nd favourite for this event with only McIlroy ahead of him. Lowry is hitting top form right now ahead of the championship he won as an amateur back at Baltray in 2009. He said in an interview post Wentworth that his short game is "on fire", after going bogey free for the last 54 holes in Surrey. “I’m really excited about next week now,” “It’s the Irish Open and it’s massive for me. I just can’t wait to get up there. I’m really excited about getting up there and hopefully contending next weekend as well.” It was Lowry's best finish (T6) of the season where he's been playing in the US. T7 at Torrey Pines is his highest finish Stateside in 2015. Shane is a links and wind specialist with one of the best short games in the business.
Luke Donald - 51.00 or 11.00 - hasn't been given much of a shout this week by the bookmakers. In reality this track and test suits Donald and his superb scrambling game down to the ground. Let's not forget that Donald was world no. 1 this time a few years back and he has links pedigree having been twice in the top five of the Open Championship to add to the Scottish Open success on the links at Castle Stuart. He's also a multiple winner on the harry Colt designed Wentworth. Donald was 70 or better for three of four rounds at the BMW PGA Championship, ranking 22nd in driving accuracy. His scrambling was especially superb on day 1 last week.
Chris Wood - 41.00 or 9.00 - was up and down over the weekend at Wentworth and bogeyed the 72nd to post a 66 total on the Sunday - good enough for fourth place. Wood loves links tests; He says he likes all the different types of shots required to do well on links courses. At Wentworth Wood ranked 15th in driving accuracy, 2nd in driving distance, 15th in GIR% and 4th in putts per GIR suggesting his all round game is in great shape. He'll also feel like he's freerolling a bit after winning a brand new BMW for an ace on Sunday.
I mentioned Marc Warren - 51.00 or 11.00 - and he took down the Made in Denmark tournament last year in style. Warren shot a Saturday 66 in near impossible conditions to take control of the event and he closed it out nicely. Marc was shaping up well at Wentworth until a Warren of old style blow up on the way home on day 2 scuppered his chances with two doubles in two holes. Despite this, the Scot was was first for putting last week and finished the tournament strongly going -3 down the stretch so if his game is near what he had in Denmark, he should feature.
Royal County Down held the British Amateur Championship in 1999 and Graeme Storm - 151.00 or 26.00 - emerged victorious. Storm is a multiple first round leader on the European Tour and knows how to go deep. He shot a second round 64 at Wentworth to give us a timely reminder, and he's a big price here.
Darren Clarke - 201.00 or 36.00 - was another to catch the attention at the BMW PGA, carding a 66 to finish. It's Darren style golf this week in his homeland, and as he proved at the 2011 Open Championship, it's a different ball game on the links. Clarke hadn't been showing great form prior to his Iberdrola and Open championship successes but he proved the man most able in windy conditions and had all the shots required in both events. We could see more of the same this week now that he's obviously found something so write him off at your peril.
Keep an eye this week on Gavin Moynihan, a big Irish prospect who's been attending Colledge in the US, surrounded by top up and coming talent. He just captured his second Irish Amateur Championship to add to a Scottish one. He hit a 3rd round 65 at Royal Dublin two weeks ago to take control of the Irish Amateur and closed out in tough conditions on the links.