It will not be in the nature of the tournament host to have slept easily last night on the eve of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open but his efforts to make this €6.2m European Tour event a success have already earned Paul McGinley the right to relax just a little.
When compatriot, triple major champion, and future Irish Open host Pádraig Harrington jokingly complains that his friend has set the bar unfairly high for all those who follow as keepers of this tournament’s flame, you get an idea of the level of commitment McGinley has given to this cause and a near sell-out crowd this weekend, starting with today’s opening round, will bear testament to that. McGinley has lucked out with the weather but he has also succeeded in transforming Lahinch into a spectacular tournament venue with a quality field competing on an iconic links, the players’ decision to play it rewarded with an ideal opportunity to prepare for this month’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
That will be icing on the cake for the likes of tournament favourite Jon Rahm and his Ryder Cup Europe brethren Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Thorbjorn Olesen, and Ian Poulter, all of whom will line up today alongside home favourites Shane Lowry, Graeme McDowell, Paul Dunne, Darren Clarke, and Harrington.
Throw in a couple more major champions in Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen alongside fellow stars Rafa Cabrera Bello, Matt Wallace, and Eddie Pepperell, and McGinley has got together a field the crowds will come flocking to see.
With Rory McIlroy absent, the mantle of leading Irishman rests with Lowry who is in form and set to go toe to toe with Fleetwood and defending champion Russell Knox in a marquee pairing going out at 8:40am today.
There is also plenty to like in the afternoon side of the draw when the crowds will be treated to 2020 Ryder Cup captain Harrington playing with Hatton and Poulter at 1:10pm and exciting crowd favourite Rahm of f alongside Oosthuizen and Wallace 10 minutes later.
McDowell, an 8:30am starter in a group with Kaymer and Olesen, believes if the wind fails to blow above the forecast 15mph this weekend, the potential winning score could sneak into double figures under par. “If it doesn’t blow, how do you protect it?” he asked. “Portrush, I think the R&A obviously have the ability to really tuck pins. Will they do that this week? You might not see Open Championship level pins this week, so perhaps the protection level might not be there.
“The greens are well protected, though, with lots of run-off areas. The surfaces are perfect. They’re as good a set of links greens as I’ve seen in a long time. They’re really perfect and pure. And it’s not really tricky off the greens this week. The bunkers are quite benign. The main trouble on this golf course is if you are ever short of greens, typically they run back off the fronts and you leave yourself difficult up-and-downs, but in and around the greens it’s not mega difficult.
“So four days like this, par-70, you know, four 67s, 10- or 12-under, something like that I think would be a very good score. I’ll take that now if I’m able to.”
So too would Rahm, the in-form Spaniard who won on his Irish Open debut at Portstewart in 2017 and followed up with a tie for fourth behind Knox at Ballyliffin.
He arrived in Lahinch with cast-iron recent form following a tie for third at the US Open followed by a joint runner-up finish at last Sunday’s Andalucia Masters at Valderrama. Those were the 24-year-old’s eight and ninth top-10 finishes of the season so far, also including at the Masters and the world number 11 is only missing a victory to make 2019 a very good season indeed. He feels a return to the comfort zone Ireland has provided him may tick that box.
“I’m confident,” Rahm declared. “You know, those weeks, this week and The Irish Open is one of the few, if not the only one, that I feel almost as comfortable as the support that I had last week in Valderrama and the Spanish Open. I don’t know why, it might be my love for the country of Ireland, but it’s something that I feel like the support is here. The support is amazing. Every time I come, I’m just comfortable. It’s a great feeling.
“And yeah, my golf game feels pretty good... 11 (under) in two different tournaments, and to finish top three and top two, right? So that doesn’t happen really often in tournaments, and two in a row. It’s two very difficult golf courses, and that’s why I was comfortable in Valderrama. I just had the same mindset.
“I believe here, we might be able to go a little bit lower. It all depends on the wind we get. But who knows, if it starts blowing hard, single digits could win it. But I hope I can just play as good as I have so far.”
Wind or no wind, Rahm will be the man to beat at Lahinch.