IRISH OPEN: The collective focus of the golf world and this column shifts to the Emerald Isle this week for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, an event that, in addition to surely being the world’s only national open that includes a foreign city in its official name (though I suppose it’s better than the Waste Management Phoenix Open, eh?), is now the first leg of a 3-week stretch of links golf that culminates with the Open Championship.
This current setup– the tournament being held two weeks before the Open, always on a links course– has only been in effect since 2017, and has proven very successful thus far. Interest is up, purses are up, fields are improving, and best of all from a fan’s perspective, we get to see a sampling of great Irish links courses that are largely unknown to much of the world. In 2017 it was Portstewart, last year it was Ballyliffin, and now Lahinch, a course founded in 1892 that bills itself as the “St. Andrew’s of Ireland” (h/t Wikipedia), gets its turn in the spotlight.
Lahinch is a par-70 that measures just 7,036 yards, so it’s rather short by Tour standards, and that’s before you factor in the firm ground that is a fixture of all links courses. The primary defense, naturally, will be the wind, as the course is fully exposed and sits right on Liscannor Bay, and players will have to contend with blind shots, difficult bunkers, and nasty rough in spots– in other words, the bag of tricks you’d expect. Good wind players and those with ample links experience are obviously prime targets this week, and if you’re looking for trends, you have to go all the way back to Brett Rumford’s win in 2004 to find the last time a non-European won this event, and 9 of the last 12 winners have come from the UK & Ireland. If you want a blueprint, there it is, I suppose.
Jon Rahm heads BETDAQ’s Win Market at 10.0, an awfully short price considering Rahm hasn’t won in awhile and has never played Lahinch in competition. He’s in good form, however, and he did blow away the field at Portstewart two years ago, proving that he’s a dangerous links player. I certainly understand why he’s the favorite this week, but I think I’ll be taking my chances with these three instead:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Martin Kaymer (36.0)- I haven’t backed Kaymer much over the past few years, as his early-career success often led to him being overvalued while he was struggling with the putter and searching to regain top form. But things have really started to click for him over the past six weeks– he finished T8 at the British Masters (held at Hillside links), solo 3rd at the Memorial, and T16 at the BMW International Open, where he led after two rounds. He has a nice links record that includes a victory in the Alfred Dunhill Links back in 2010, and he’s played well in this event, logging two top-10s in his past four appearances. With growing momentum and the taste of links success still fresh after his top-10 at Hillside, Kaymer should be viewed as one of the favorites this week and is worth a bet at a price like 36.0.
Eddie Pepperell (52.0)- One of the most easygoing, affable guys in the world of golf, Pepperell is easy to root for, but more importantly he’s legitimized himself as one of the world’s top players after a 2018 season that included a pair of European Tour victories and a T6 at the Open Championship. He hasn’t yet found the winner’s circle this year, but he did finish runner-up at the British Masters a few weeks ago, a performance that was just the latest in a long string of good results on links courses. Other links highlights include a pair of top-5s in the Scottish Open (’15, ’18) and a runner-up finish in this event back in 2015, when it was held at Royal County Down. We’ve only seen Pepperell once since his runner-up at Hillside, so he should be rested and ready for this three-week stretch, and a victory this week is certainly within the realm of possibility. I’m happy to back him at better than 50/1.
Tom Lewis (112.0)- Though it’s been a quiet year for Lewis thus far, he did play some excellent golf at the GolfSixes Cascais last month, where he and partner Paul Waring finished runner-up. Maybe that will be the jump-start that Lewis needs heading into this all-important three-week stretch; he’s shown before that he can get hot quickly, logging five top-6 finishes (including a pair of victories) in a 7-week stretch last season after finding the top-10 just once in his previous 12 starts. As you would expect of an Englishman, Lewis has loads of links experience and first shot to prominence with an opening-round 65 in the 2011 Open at Royal St. George’s, setting the mark for the lowest score by an amateur in Open Championship history. More recently, his links prowess was on display with his T10 at the Alfred Dunhill Links last year, a performance that came on the heels of a victory at the Portugal Masters and solidified his return to prominence after a multi-year slump. If you’re looking for a live longshot this week, you could do a lot worse than Lewis.