As host of one of the European Tour’s largest events, his preparation time is already compromised by many time-consuming commitments, so McIlroy will understandably fret over his recent tournament form. It has fallen considerably short of his lofty standards, at a time when the world’s top-ranked golfer, Jason Day’s form has gone from strength to strength.
McIlroy, of course, knows better than most that a dominant streak can abruptly end but if he is to get back to winning ways consistently again, he has to quickly address his unforced tournament error count before it mentally eats into his game.
McIlroy doesn’t play golf to simply make up the numbers. He is a winner by nature and these past few months will have frustrated him deeply, because he is not far off consistently producing the type of golf he is capable of. So near and yet so far. And yet for every week he continues to struggle, others like Day are widening the gap, knowing every good finish makes McIlroy’s task of catching them all the more difficult. Pressure builds pressure.
The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open represents a fantastic opportunity for McIlroy to address his winless streak in 2016, as the now fully matured K Club course layout plays right into his game’s strengths. The K Club is a perfect championship venue, one which offers both the players and knowledgeable galleries a top-quality test.
Playing at just over 7,300 yards, the course strongly favours powerful ball strikers like McIlroy, who are able to take a direct line over the many dog-leg holes like the par fives at No’s 4, 16, and 18, or the par fours on 11, 13, and 17, in order to significantly reduce the yardage of their approach shots into the receptive, medium-paced greens.
If Rory couldn’t have picked a more suitable track to end his winless streak, that must be tempered by the fact that the Irish Open also demands so much in terms of distractions for those fancied Irish players like McIlroy, Lowry, McDowell, and Harrington. It is essential not to allow focus to stray managing the weight of expectation from a partisan Irish Open crowd, who can be both a help as well as a hindrance.
To win, McIlroy probably knows that he doesn’t have to play at his imperious best, but he does have to channel those recent frustrations into a winning performance, one that patiently curbs his natural enthusiasm so that he more often hits the right shot at the right time.
And what of the others? Well from an Irish perspective, it is great to see our leading lights in very good form. All know this course well and local knowledge counts at the K Club, particularly around the middle of the course, where gusting winds can impact the flight of the ball.
This week also represents a great opportunity for Shane Lowry to take advantage of his length on a course that will reward his creativity and shot-making. He is a much better player now than the one that won the tournament as an amateur in 2009 but like McIlroy he needs to knuckle down and play consistently well for all four rounds.
Graeme McDowell is in a good “vein of form” also, but his task this week is made all the more difficult by the fact that he is not long enough to reduce the the length of many of the dog-legs, which in turn means that he can not compete on even terms with many of the favourites, like McIlroy, Willet, and Lowry.
Padraig Harrington has a chance but only if he can put himself into position over the first three days: something which continues to confound him these days.
That said, he will ride on the goodwill of his many supporters and nothing will excite him more that being in a position to win his second Irish Open come Sunday afternoon.
A word too, for our newest crop of young players — Paul Dunne, Gary Hurley, and the amateur Jack Hume. This week represents a great opportunity for them to showcase their talents against a stellar field. For Dunne and Hurley in particular, it also affords them the opportunity to win some serious money and with it the possibility of other invitations to prestigious events, something which would be very welcome at this point in their fledgling professional careers.
And what of the international field? It’s great to see the Irish Open being supported amongst others by such stars as Masters champion Danny Willet, two times major champion Martin Kaymer, as well as the evergreen Lee Westwood, someone who has already won over this course earlier on in his career.
All have form but it’s hard to see past an Irish winner this week and in doing so providing the perfect tribute to late Christy O’Connor Snr.