Pádraig Harrington says links course points to Irish win

A new title sponsor, superstar host, stellar field and a bigger prizefund. As if things were not already going swimmingly for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, organisers last night confirmed that today’s first-round ticket sales at Royal County Down (RCD) had made the tournament completely sold out.

As the European Tour urged non-ticket holders not to turn up in Newcastle, some of golf’s greatest exponents were busy figuring out how best to negotiate the first two rounds, which are expected to be played in 25mph winds and scattered showers.

Those are the type of conditions on a links course that make two-time Open Championship winner Pádraig Harrington believe that a home win is due for the first time since Shane Lowry won as an amateur just 100 kilometres down the east coast at Baltray in 2009.

“I would expect that there’s more chance of having an Irish winner than not,” Harrington said. “Just because we’re on a links golf course, I think that really takes a few people out and the fact we’re on possibly in tough conditions, that’s going to take a few more people out.

“I really do believe that with the conditions that are forecast, you want to have that natural aptitude for playing links golf. Basically, you want to have grown up playing it. It will basically play into the hands of the Irish guys who have competed in links golf in their junior days.”

Of course, the last time an Irish Open visited a links was in 2011 at Royal Portrush and Jamie Donaldson of Wales emerged victorious, yet the consensus is that Royal County Down is an even sterner test than the Dunluce Links and when Portrush native Graeme McDowell is a part of that, you had better take notice.

The former US Open champion, who helped the successful lobby for his hometown course to return to The Open Championship rota, believes RCD also belongs there.

“I’m a little biased towards Portrush, of course, but there’s something about this golf course that I love,” McDowell said. “I love the elevated changes. It’s a much tougher golf course. I love the bunkering. This will be a really, really great showcase I think for golf and Ireland in general.

“This is pure links. It’s preparation. It’s understanding that when the wind shifts, things that were not in play come in play, being able to change your strategy sort of within an hour when the wind starts to switch around; positioning your iron shots and hitting the right spots and understanding where to miss these greens, and then pace putting, pace putting really well.”

With a field spearheaded by world number one and reigning Open champion Rory McIlroy, whose Rory Foundation hosts the tournament and will benefit hugely in its work helping child cancer sufferers, there are plenty of candidates to fit McDowell’s bill for success. Sergio Garcia has famously come close to winning The Open and he and Rickie Fowler ran McIlroy close at Hoylake last July, while Harrington, Darren Clarke and Ernie Els all tee it up today having lifted a Claret Jug.

McDowell is no stranger to links golf and won his US Open title at Pebble Beach by the Pacific Ocean in 2010, so he was bullish about his own prospects this week, depending on the weather.

“I’m liking the way the test looks for me. I think you have to drive it really well here, as well. The guy who wins it here this week will have really played well. All facets of his game will have been working well and the elements will play a massive part.

"I could go out there tomorrow morning at 8.00 and my tournament could be over by midday, if you get on the wrong side of the draw; if you get some strong wind and cold rain and get overpowered early, it could be over early. You need a little bit of fortune, a few good breaks with the weather, a few good bounces. I feel like I can get around this golf course.

"I haven’t played it a ton in the past, only socially, played it four or five times socially, and never played it competitively. I’m really excited to start to understand the nuances of this golf course a bit better this weekend.

“I think this golf course in a breeze is four shots harder than Portrush. It’s a very, very difficult golf course, this one, and Portrush, got torn up a few years ago. This is not going to get torn up this week. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in Portrush and I love Portrush, but this is a tough golf course.”

McIlroy concurred with his fellow Ulsterman, adding: “I think it will really reward a smart golfer. It’s really like a game of chess out here. Just got to play your positions and you’ve got to just plot your way along. That’s what it will reward. I definitely hope I’m a smarter golfer now than I was when I was 15. It’s a tough golf course.”

Relaxed and refreshed following his fatigued effort in missing the cut at Wentworth last week, a highly-motivated McIlroy is best equipped to crack the code.

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