LAHINCH, Ireland – The best stretch of golf on the European Tour starts this week with the Irish Open, followed by the Scottish Open and then the British Open in successive weeks.
Thinking about three weeks on some of the best links courses in the world makes my mouth water.
Consider the winners of past Irish Opens: Bobby Locke, Christy O’Connor Jr., Ben Crenshaw, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Jose Maria Olazabal, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy among them. It’s a pedigree that is hardly matched in professional golf.
Since 1927, when Scotland’s George Duncan won the inaugural Irish Open by one shot over England’s Henry Cotton at Portmarnock, the Irish Open has attracted exceptional fields to some of the greatest golf courses on the Emerald Isle. Foremost among the stops have been Royal County Down, Royal Dublin, Ballybunion, Portstewart and, this year for the first time, Lahinch Golf Club. Most of these venues are stopping points for any American visitor to play and experience true links golf.
The majority of this year’s Irish Open field has not competed at Lahinch, an 1892 Old Tom Morris and Alister MacKenzie design on the island’s southwest coast (tee times). The learning process should be a bit more daunting than returning to a familiar course.
Coincidentally, the next three venues on the European Tour will be new to their competitors. The Renaissance Club, a 2008 design by Tom Doak, sits just outside of Edinburgh and will host the Scottish Open. Royal Portrush, the site of only one previous British Open, the 1951 edition won by Max Faulkner, will welcome the return of the game’s oldest championship.
Ireland’s Paul McGinley, the victorious 2014 European Ryder Cup captain, will be the host of the Irish Open, a duty that he has taken seriously. The club will be in the international spotlight for the first time in 68 years as host of the national open, and then the British Open will return to the Emerald Isle two weeks later.
McGinley wanted to make Lahinch feel, in terms of conditions, like Royal Portrush in two weeks.
The approach is similar to how the PGA Tour’s former Atlanta-area stop, which ended in 2008, was set up the week before the Masters. As closely as possible, the tournament mirrored Augusta National, with tight lies and lightning-fast greens.
When the tournament lost its date, the Shell Houston Open filled the space by trying to replicate similar shots to be found at Augusta, again with the goal of preparing the players for the next week.
McGinley has taken a similar approach to help players prepare for another links test in the last major championship of the year. The best way to do that was for McGinley to contact Grant Moir of the R&A, who is involved with setup of the Open venues.
“Obviously, we're not copying exactly everything we do because of the different designs of the holes,” said McGinley, comparing Lahinch with Portrush. “But we have information on the green speeds, and we have information on the rough heights, the fairway widths, the run-off areas. I was up in Portrush myself last week.”
McGinley said he believes strongly in preparation and that the Irish Open competitors should feel well prepared to win a major championship in two weeks.
Though Northern Ireland’s McIlroy, a four-time major champion, will not be competing this week, McGinley has done everything possible to draw the best field possible to Lahinch.
Irishmen Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry headline the local favorites, with Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, Englishmen Tommy Fleetwood, Ian Poulter and Matt Wallace, Spain’s Jon Rahm and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen also serving as top attractions.
“I think in 20 years' time, when Rory's career is kind of winding down, there will be another young Rory McIlroy coming on,” McGinley said in responding to a question about McIlroy’s absence. “And that's the evolution. The game is always bigger than any one player. And I think the validation of sellout crowds that we're anticipating, certainly the weekend is an indication that we haven't been too much affected by Rory not playing.”
Lahinch features a number of blind shots, which most professional golfers dislike, though amateurs might find the trait to be charming.
“I think I look at it and I accept that you're going to get a few unfortunate breaks,” Lowry said. “And that's links golf, and that's the way it kind of is and should be. That's the beauty of it; it's not straightforward. There's probably five or 10 ways to play the shots. And you have to pick the right one and then go about it.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli