Tour’s top Euro stars slow to get on the road to Baltray

MOBILE phone company 3, the new sponsors of the Irish Open, must be anxious at the lack of big-name foreign players who will compete in Baltray next month (May 14-17).

True, the Wild Thing, John Daly, will be there, as will three-time former champion Colin Montgomerie, but it’s a matter of opinion as to how much public appeal they command these days.

The good news is that Lee Westwood will maintain his unwavering support of the Irish Open and other Ryder Cup players intending to enter over the next couple of days include Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell, along with Miguel-Angel Jimenez and Soren Hansen. Leading members of the circuit such as Volvo Masters champion Soren Kjeldsen, big hitting Ross Fisher, former winner Thomas Bjorn and Richard Finch, last year’s winner at Adare, will also be there.

However, there is disappointment and frustration among the sponsors at the absence of several other leading players.

The Swedes, Henrik Stenson and Robert Karlsson, haven’t filed an entry nor have England’s Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose.

These and others can claim the Open is sandwiched in between two of their year’s most prestigious events, the Tournament Players Championship at Sawgrass, and the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

There is no doubt the mid-May date is not a good one for attracting the top players and a change will be on the cards for 2010 and beyond. Nevertheless, a glance at the prize money at most other European Tour tournaments tells you that the €3m offer at Baltray is way ahead of most events.

The failure of the players to support such generosity in these straitened times and the inability of the European Tour to persuade them to do so is certain to impact on sponsors.

Privately, the organisers and sponsors admit it is a source of massive frustration.

As things stand, the leaders of the home challenge, Harrington, Rory McIlroy, McDowell, Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke, remain the main attraction for the Baltray fans. All four profess a strong liking for the Baltray links having played a considerable amount there as amateurs and, with the exception of McIlroy, renewed their liking for the Tom Simpson-designed links during the 2004 Open.

Harrington returns to competitive action this week in the Quail Hollow Championship (formerly the Wachovia) in Charlotte, North Carolina, anxious to kick start his season after a string of moderate performances. He has slipped from third to seventh in the world rankings and is a lowly 39th in the Race to Dubai European Tour order of merit.

Like most of the other leading players, Harrington took a couple of weeks off after the Masters and now returns in pretty distinguished company with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera, Geoff Ogilvy and Sergio Garcia also the field.

Woods won at Quail Hollow in 2007 but missed out last year when Anthony Kim captured the title on the way to clinching his place on the US Ryder Cup team.

McIlroy sits out this week before returning to action in the Players Championship at Sawgrass next week. Even one so young — he celebrates his 20th birthday on Monday — must schedule his season carefully to avoid burn-out and the Holywood youngster was a busy man throughout the early months of the year which he capped with a great victory in the Dubai Desert Classic followed by a series of solid performances in the United States.

On the European Tour, Peter Lawrie goes into his defence of the Spanish Open at Catalunya, Girona, on Thursday with his confidence restored after a splendid closing round of 66 in the Ballantines Championship in Korea Sunday. The 35-year-old Dubliner had struggled over the previous few weeks, having missed three cuts and only qualified for the weekend in Korea by getting up and down from off the final green in the second round.

“Well, the same happened last year, to be honest,” he mused. “I missed the cut in Beijing, I finished tied for ninth in Shanghai and I won the next week. The game is coming around. It will be a bit strange defending the title on a different course but I’ve never been a defending champion before so it is going to be strange.

“That win in Seville gave me a confidence. It didn’t work too well on the sponsorship side of things but gave me a lot of confidence on the course. I’ve been out here a long time, played Challenge Tour for a good few years. After a while, you think: start doing the lottery.”

Now, the scene is a whole lot rosier for Lawrie, just as it is for Michael Hoey who returns to action this week for the first time since his maiden Tour victory in the Portuguese Open. Paul McGinley, Damien McGrane, Gary Murphy and Jonathan Caldwell are also in the field at Catalunya.


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