NORTHERN Ireland has been waiting for this week. It is 68 years since the Open was last at Royal Portrush, 30 years since Rory McIlroy was born, nine years since Graeme McDowell kickstarted the country’s major championship success (continued by McIlroy and also Darren Clarke), seven years since the course proved itself on the European Tour, five years since the R&A announced it had returned to the rota and ten months since the tickets sold out. It’s fair to say that the country is ready to burst, but who will take home the spoils?
To win – Jon Rahm 16/1
When he won this month’s Irish Open (for the second time) the Spaniard gushed: “I can't say again how much I love Ireland. I feel like I'm at home, the support is unbelievable. I'm going into the Open with a lot of confidence and it's a special one. I'm going to have a lot of good memories because we stayed in Portrush when I won this event at Portstewart. I’ll be in the Harbour bistro again every night.”
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) July 7, 2019
It’s not just good vibes which favour the 24-year-old because having failed to land a top 20 finish in his first six major championship starts he has subsequently collected four top tens in seven appearances. Moreover, in his final round of 62 at Lahinch two weeks ago he displayed aggression with his long game and fearless precision with his short game when it really mattered, but even more impressively on the two occasions when he made errors and his head threatened to implode (a past failing) he stayed calm. In his last three starts he has chalked up his best in a major (third at the US Open), second at a course that doesn’t much suit him (Valderrama, more proof that he is maturing) and rubber-stamped his links pedigree. He looks primed.
Each way – Henrik Stenson 33/1
When asked for his opinion of the Royal Portrush test this week Rory McIlroy said: “I think driving the golf ball matters because the rough's penal. You've got these little fern bushes in the rough and if you get in them it's a hack out. Then there's a lot of holes you can't be aggressive. At Carnoustie the rough was wispy, my game plan was hit driver, find it, go from there. You can't do that at Portrush. Mid-iron play and finding fairways will be key.”
3 days left to go ⛳️
— The Open (@TheOpen) July 15, 2019
The man who is called to mind reading those words is Sweden’s Henrik Stenson. His Driving Accuracy stats on both the European and PGA Tours are excellent (he ranks 21st and fifth) and he also rates first and eighth for Strokes Gained: Approach on the two circuits. He’s a four-time top three Open finisher, including that sensational win at Royal Troon in 2016, and his form is strong too with top tens in the Canadian Open, U.S. Open and then tied fourth in last week’s Scottish Open. His 3-wood is famously his go-to club and it could just be the one which earns him a second Claret Jug.
Outsider – Shane Lowry 66/1
After the Irish Open home hero Shane Lowry said of this week: “I'm hoping to fly as much under the radar as I can and just go about my business. Hopefully, I can get out there and do what I've been doing for most of the year, shooting some decent scores.” He’s certainly played some good golf this season and you could claim that he’s completed the trifecta of requirements for this week’s test.
"It's an honour for me, obviously Shane Lowry is in the top 50 in the world, and there are a lot of good players in Ireland"
— Off The Ball (@offtheball) July 7, 2019
Finding the winning formula? He did that when winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January. Winning by the seaside on a course that values accuracy from the tee and precise approach shots? He proved himself when third at Harbour Town in the Heritage. A good result on a course designed by Harry Colt (responsible for the original Portrush layout)? How about his second at Hamilton in the Canadian Open. It might be fanciful for the Irishman to believe he can avoid attention this week, but he can certainly let McIlroy, McDowell and Harrington hog most of it and he knows exactly how to cope should he find himself in the heat of battle because his 2009 Irish Open win was completed amid scenes of golfing ecstasy. The final piece in the jigsaw? He’s a two-time course winner in top Irish amateur events.