Players who plunder par 5s in with shout

The Irish Open has provided me with many of my very best memories from professional golf.

Players who plunder par 5s in with shout

For example, it gave me my first professional start in 1987 at Portmarnock as well as my best European Tour finish, a tie for third place in 1998 at Druid’s Glen.

From an Irish player’s perspective though, the Irish Open is so much more than just another tour event. It is their national Open championship, their fifth major and a must on their career CV. It is also the one annual chance the player has to perform on home soil in front of family, friends and a largely anonymous but adoring general public who routinely follow the Irish players on tour each week.

As long as I can remember the Irish Open has always been a more relaxed event for both the player and spectator alike. There’s more engagement from the knowledgeable galleries and for that there’s greater appreciation and interaction from the players as when a player’s guard is more relaxed this leads to a more enjoyable experience for all. As a former player, I have witnessed the deep emotional investment the Irish golfing public has given to the Irish Open.

Despite knowing that sports, especially golf, are never guaranteed to end happily, I have, in my own time, experienced spectators’ unbridled joy and palpable pain from my own performances despite my actions having little or no affect on their life at all.

This week, as the European Tour comes to Ireland, it is very much hoping it can inspire attendance from all sporting fans, despite the fact the GAA championship season is in full flow. Fans and galleries are the lifeblood of all professional sports and the only reason why anybody in the industry receives a cheque. However, sustaining a devoted fan base can be both an opportunity and a major challenge, especially when the European Tour’s competitors are engaging in an all-out battle for the hearts, time, attention and wallets of sports fans.

This week, the European Tour can relax somewhat because although the Irish Open has no official title sponsor, the event itself is in a healthy place because in recent years the Irish fans have tended to vote with their feet and this week we can again expect bumper crowds at the immaculately presented Fota Island.

Fota Island already has a tremendous reputation amongst the players and I expect that experience to be enhanced even further with the addition of their new short range academy and a weather forecast that more or less guarantees dry, warm conditions.

The course itself is in pristine condition and has been strengthened by the addition of some extra length on the par five holes and a new tee box on the sixth. That said, in warm conditions the ball will fly further and I expect the players to take full advantage.

As to who will contend for the title? Well there is no doubt the course in its current condition favours the long hitter, but only if they putt well. There are some key holes like numbers 8, 15 &17 to negotiate, but, by and large, the course will favour the players who can take advantage of their length and plunder the par 5s. At the end of the week I expect the winning score to be in the region of 16 under par plus.

In terms of the players then, the course sets itself up beautifully for the likes of Rory McIlroy, who has both the length and accuracy to take advantage of the conditions, but there are question marks over the consistency of his putting.

Shane Lowry also has the big-time game to take advantage of this week, but, much like Pádraig Harrington, both are struggling for consistency.

Of the others there is the defending champion Paul Casey, past winner Ross Fisher, Graeme McDowell and one Matthew Fitzpatrick, last year’s US Amateur Champion who is making his professional debut this week. Being partisan, we want to see an Irishman in contention again. We want the Irish Open to sell us its unique and emotional experiences.

Much like the New Zealand Haka, we want all Irish participants this week to lay down a welcoming challenge that says “come beat me”.

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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