IRISH OPEN: Northwest Ireland will be the epicenter of the golfing universe this week, as a strong international field has gathered at Ballyliffin in Donegal for the 63rd edition of the Irish Open.
This tournament changes venues every year, but now that it’s held in July, two weeks prior to the Open, one thing will remain consistent: it will be held on a links course. That gives us a 3-week stretch of world-class links golf, as this event will be followed by the Scottish Open next week and then, of course, the Open. It’s a nice change of pace from the usual “target golf”, and the two-week lead-in to the Open gives the players a chance to prepare and adjust to the conditions, the firmness of the ground, the inconsistency of the bunkers, the brutality of the rough, and everything else that links courses throw at you.
Ballyliffin in County Donegal is a relative newcomer to the world of elite-level professional golf, though it did host a European Tour/Challenge Tour co-sanctioned event back in 2002. It held up quite well that week, surrendering only a handful of under-par scores, but the weather was supposedly nasty and preliminary forecasts (for what they’re worth.. which is frequently nothing) are calling for much milder weather this week. The course measures over 7,400 yards, but, presumably, it won’t play nearly that long on account of the firm fairways. There have been reports that the rough is longer and thicker than usual, and Rory McIlroy called Ballyliffin “one of the toughest links courses in the world” in a press conference, so the course surely has its defenses, but everyone seems to anticipate low scoring unless the wind picks up.
Going low was certainly the name of the game last year, with Jon Rahm reaching 24-under in his impressive win at Portstewart. The general consensus seems to be that Ballyliffin is a bit more difficult than Portstewart tee-to-green, but it’s dangerous to make assumptions with a course that so few in the field have seen, and, again, the weather will largely determine what type of course the players will see this week.
Rahm is back to defend and should have plenty of backers after a near-miss in France last week, as will the man who joins him atop the market, tournament host Rory McIlroy, who struck the ball beautifully at the Travelers Championship two weeks ago but had to settle for 12th thanks to a balky putter. Will a return home to greens he grew up on inject some life into Rory’s flat stick this week? It very well may, but I’m not willing to take the risk at a price like 7.8. I like Rahm (7.6) a little more, but with the unpredictability that comes with a new venue, I’m staying away from the super-short prices this week.
Here’s what I have in mind:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Matthew Fitzpatrick (24.0)- Fitzpatrick has yet to find the winner’s circle in 2018, but he sure seems due– he has five top-15 finishes and three top-10s in 12 worldwide starts this season, splitting time between Europe and America. He’s proven that he knows how to win, racking up four victories on the European Tour since 2015, and he comes into this week in good form after finishing 12th at the U.S. Open two starts ago and 27th in France last week. The young Englishman has loads of experience with links golf and has a solid record in this event, making the cut three times in four appearances and cracking the top-10 at Royal County Down in 2015. Fitzpatrick checks just about all the boxes this week and is my favorite bet on the board at 24.0.
Haotong Li (43.0)- An ascending player whose game has proven to be quite adaptable, Li made a big splash with his victory at the Dubai Desert Classic in January, and though that was followed by a couple of unremarkable months, he now seems to be returning to top form, finishing 21st or better in each of his past three starts (Italian Open, U.S. Open, Open de France). Surprisingly, the 23-year old Li has already played this event three times, making the cut on each occasion and and finding the top-20 at the K Club in 2016. While some may point out that the K Club is not a links course, Li looked awfully comfortable with links-style golf at last year’s Open Championship, where he closed with a 63 at Royal Birkdale to finish solo 3rd. And playing a new venue like Ballyliffin is an advantage for someone like Li, who has become used to a steady diet of new courses throughout his young career, while his competitors oftentimes have considerable experience on these courses. Now everyone’s on equal footing (with the exception of a few Irishmen in the field), and no one really knows what type of player Ballyliffin will favor. I’ll take my chances with a guy who has had success all around the globe and seems to be peaking at the right time.
Ryan Fox (94.0)– A win this week would be a huge breakthrough for Fox, but it’s certainly not out of the question. He’s been playing well lately, making seven straight cuts and finishing T8 at the Italian Open three starts ago, and earlier this year he nearly got the job done in Malaysia, closing with a 66 to finish just three shots behind winner Shubhankar Sharma. The big-hitting New Zealander may not have as much links experience as some, but links golf seems to agree with him, as last year he tied for 4th in both this tournament and the Scottish Open. Will Ballyliffin favor bombers like Fox in the same way that Portstewart did last year? At this point, it’s anybody’s guess. But if you’re looking for a live longshot this week, you could do a whole lot worse than Fox.