Scotland’s Russell Knox emerged victorious from an exciting conclusion to the sun-soaked Dubai Duty Free Irish Open as a disappointed home contingent was already turning their thoughts to Carnoustie and next week’s bid for the Open Championship.
Knox sank two stunning 40-feet putts at the 18th yesterday, the first to claim the clubhouse lead from Jorge Campillo of Spain late in the final round. Then he repeated the feat after New Zealander Ryan Fox had joined him on 14 under par to force a play-off on the same hole. As he had managed in regulation on the 72nd hole, Knox rolled in the distance putt to pile the pressure on Fox, whose own effort lipped out to hand the Scot victory and a winner’s cheque for €998,425. He did it in front of a delighted gallery in a crowd of 27,055 that took total attendance for the week to 94,239.
Having come agonisingly close to winning this tournament at the K Club two years ago - the day Rory McIlroy snatched victory with a magical approach iron from 252 yards over water to three feet - Knox this time turned the table on Fox, who had led after 18 holes, co-led after 36 with Matthieu Pavon and Erik van Rooyen and started the final day four shots behind runaway 54-hole leader van Rooyen.
A European Tour rookie this year, the van Rooyen express had derailed on the final day, the South African fading with a two-over 74 to share fourth place with defending champion Jon Rahm, whose fourth-round 66 equalled Knox’s and was one behind Campillo’s seven-under round of the day. For the champion, though, there was tremendous satisfaction at following a runner-up finish with a victory in his second Irish Open start.
“Must be the Guinness I guess,” Knox. “Obviously this is a massive tournament. The K Club and Ballyliffin, polar opposites, obviously. Both terrific venues. I don’t know, I just got lucky. This is my week, this time of year, to play good golf, I guess. Yeah, lucky to be my time.”
As Knox celebrated and Fox took his play-off defeat on the chin, consoled by earning one of three qualifying spots available for The 147th Open later this month, the Irish contingent was already turning its focus on the tough challenge Carnoustie will pose next week.
McIlroy and Shane Lowry finished the best of the home contingent at two under, the latter posting a closing 70 to the former’s 71, a score that matched Graeme McDowell and Paul Dunne’s as the pair finished on level par for the week. Simon Thornton cashed in on winning his place in the field via an Open qualifier at Rosapenna to claim a tie for 59th. Thornton will not be at The Open but 2014 champion McIlroy feels he has benefited from his week at Ballyliffin as he bids to regain the Claret Jug he won at Hoylake.
“I think just playing links golf. Links golf is just so much different from what we play week in, week out, especially in America. The golf course that we played in Hartford a couple of weeks ago compared to the golf course here, it’s chalk and cheese, completely different golf. It’s a different game.
“So it was nice to get a competitive start on a links course, especially a firm links course with the weather under my belt before heading to The Open. Just bumping shots into greens, not being able to fly the ball all the way on, running it up, just getting comfortable with that stuff is really important heading into The Open.”
McIlroy was much happier with his putting yesterday having received an email from coach Brad Faxon overnight complete with video clips of his body language after three trying rounds on the greens.
“I think that helped,” the world number eight said. “I feel like I’m on a good path with that. I don’t feel like I need to change anything. If I putt for four days in Carnoustie like I did today I’d be happy.”
It is a first Open return to Carnoustie since 2007, when Padraig Harrington won the first of his back-to-back Claret Jugs but though the European Tour visits the Scottish links annually as one of its courses for the Alfred Dunhill Links, Dunne knows it will be a much stiffer challenge this month.
“The Dunhill, there’s no rough,” Dunne said. “It’s like when you play St Andrews in the Dunhill and then you play The Open there, tough pins and a different golf course.
“It’s not that difficult in the Dunhill because holes like the fourth you can just hit it way right and you’ve got an easy shot to the green. The strategy changes I think when they grow that rough up down the right hand side with the stream down the left so I’m sure that it will be narrow and firm. On all these links courses if the weather holds up and you’re hitting fairways there’s a chance to go low, always.”
For McDowell there is still the issue of qualifying for Carnoustie. Lost clubs in transit from France at the start of last week forced the 2010 US Open champion to withdraw from final qualifying at St Anne’s last Tuesday leaving him with two chances via the three places available at either the Irish Open or next week’s Scottish Open.
After a frustrating third round, McDowell hinted he would skip next week’s European Tour event at the Gullane links but yesterday after some reflection he had a change of heart.
“I may have changed my mind there slightly,” McDowell said. “I’ve played so much golf and there’s no point quitting now when we have more Open spots up next week.