Martin Dempster: Irish Open still world-class event despite American absence

Lahinch Golf Club will put on a great show when it hosts the Irish Open, promises Paul McGinley. Picture: Getty.
Lahinch Golf Club will put on a great show when it hosts the Irish Open, promises Paul McGinley. Picture: Getty.
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D on’t you just wish you could sometimes be in two different places at once? This week is a perfect example because I’d love to be heading to Lahinch for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, but that’s not possible due to Open Championship final qualifying at Fairmont St Andrews then Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open qualifying at Longniddry taking priority over the next few days.

The fact Russell Knox, who won in a play-off at Ballyliffin 12 months ago, is the defending champion is one reason it would be nice to have been covering the Irish Open in Co Clare. Another is the fact that the event is being hosted by Paul McGinley, a man I both like and admire through getting to know him well during his Ryder Cup captaincy at 
Gleneagles in 2014.

Earlier in the year at one of the Middle East events on the European Tour, I bumped into McGinley in between his stints in the Sky Sports studio trying to persuade players to play at Lahinch at the start of this summer’s three-week links swing on the European Tour, with that Scottish Open to follow at The Renaissance Club then, of course, the Open Championship heading to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951.

It seemed to be causing much more stress for him than coming up with his Ryder Cup masterplan that secured a brilliant victory over an American team led by Tom Watson in Perthshire, which, contrary to popular belief perhaps, shows that few of the top players are keen on playing two weeks in a row on seaside courses before the one that matters most to them, the Claret Jug event.

The fact there are no big-name Americans in the Lahinch line-up and the Mexican, Abrham Ancer, is the star among McGinley’s invitations suggests fans might be disappointed about the overall strength of the field, but that should not necessarily be the case.

Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Louis Oosthuizen and Shane Lowry are all in the field, after all, and none of them will be in East Lothian next week for the Scottish Open, though of course Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar and Henrik Stenson head a star-studded cast.

Not surprisingly, people have liked to compare the Irish and Scottish Opens in terms of strength of fields, attendance figures, etc since they became back-to-back events on the European Tour schedule three years ago and now share Rolex Series status.

For the record, the Scottish event boasts the strongest line-up for the second year running, with two top-ten players and 17 from the world’s top 50, compared to none and 12 respectively in Ireland.

However, what actually matters most is that two world-class events are about to be staged in the build-up to the final major of the season and most of the European Tour’s biggest names are teeing up in one or the other.

So, let’s enjoy the Irish Open and, according to McGinley, it will be a fun week for players and fans alike. “I always loved Castle Stuart as a Scottish Open venue even though I know it’s a modern-style golf course,” he said in an interview with geoffshackleford.com. “And I’m a great believer that difficult doesn’t mean great. Lahinch is not the most difficult golf course, but it’s a really fun golf course to play. And that for me is the most important thing. Then you put in the fact that it’s always in great condition and you get quality people down there, that will ensure putting on a really good show.”

The fact those heading to The Renaissance Club are set to be joined by Thomas, Fowler and Kuchar, as well as Kevin Kisner, Jimmy Walker and Andrew Putnam – Phil Mickelson is an absentee on this occasion among the American contingent – will create additional interest next week and, in fairness, the Scottish Open has earned the strong fields it currently attracts.

Six of the last nine Open Championship winners, after all, teed up in the Scottish Open the previous week, and McIlroy will hope to see that strategy pay off for him for a second time as he tries to achieve his dream of becoming a major winner in his native Northern Ireland in a fortnight’s time.

Eleven home players are currently in the Scottish Open field, Marc Warren having secured an invitation along with Walker and Korean C.T. Pan. One is still up for grabs while four spots will be filled from that 36-hole shoot-out at Longniddry on Saturday and Sunday after a similar event last weekend for the Irish Open.

Let three of the best weeks of the golfing year begin.