The Irish Open marks the beginning of a mini British Tour for the next three weeks, as the European Tour builds up to The Open at Royal Portrush. This should be perfect preparation for the players who are qualified, with the added bonus of this week's tournament now being a Rolex event.
Image Credit - European Tour Twitter
This is in large part due to the hard work conducted by former Ryder Cup Captain Paul McGinley, who has taken over as tournament host in Rory McIlroy's absence. As a result, there is a total purse of £5.5 million on offer for the players, even more than at the opposing PGA Tour event.
To add even more intrigue, there are also three places up for grabs for Portrush to the leading players (not otherwise exempt) who finish in the top 10 and ties. Plenty of players in the field have not so far qualified to play and so a big week here could be all that is needed to reach the most prestigious event of all.
Last year's event was won in extraordinary fashion by popular Scotsman Russell Knox. Held at Ballyliffin, Knox knew that he would have to make a birdie on the 18th hole to stand any realistic chance of catching Ryan Fox in the group behind.
After holing a fantastic putt from over 30 feet he forced a playoff, before making an almost-identical putt in the first playoff hole and sparking wild celebrations. Fox narrowly missed a 10 footer for the half, giving Knox his second European Tour win.
Image Credit - DDF Irish Open Twitter
The event was hosted by Rory McIlroy and his Foundation, with the Northern Irishman finishing T28 after being unable to break 70 during the week.
Spanish star Jon Rahm finished in the top 5, with Englishmen Danny Willett and Andy Sullivan also recording top 10s.
Lahinch is somewhat of an underappreciated venue when it comes to Irish golf; the likes of Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Druids Glen, even the K Club are the layouts which immediately spring to mind.
However it is now a relatively known story that 2009 Open Champion Stewart Cink played at Lahinch on Sunday night prior to his victory, and essentially got beaten up by the course. But it prepared him for every eventuality and once he got to Turnberry the following Thursday, apart from the pressure he felt that it actually made things a little easier.
Phil Mickelson puts Lahinch alongside Augusta National as one of his favourite golf courses, which is high praise indeed for this gem which sits right alongside the heart of the town on Ireland's western coast.
Image Credit - Lahinch GC Website
One common theme among many great golf courses, besides the wild dunes and incredible scenery, is the fact that the closing hole often brings you back to the town centre, and Lahinch is no different.
Once you have holed out on the last you are just a couple of hundred yards away from the pub, where you and your friends can discuss both the good and not-so-good from the last four hours over a well-earned drink.
The 4th hole, named Klondyke, is the most well-known on the course and one of golf's truly great holes. A straight but relatively long par 5, the hole is dominated by an enormous dune which sits in the middle of the fairway and can make club selection and visualisation very difficult.
Image Credit - Lahinch GC Twitter
Number 5, 'The Dell', makes this one of the best back-to-back combinations in the world, along with the likes of 12 and 13 at Augusta, 17 and 18 at St Andrews and the same two at Pebble Beach. Though it will probably be just a short iron for most players this week, they must ensure that they clear the dune in front of the green in order to land on the putting surface.
The fun on this hole comes from the fact that the green is obscured from the tee, meaning that like all great links courses, a combination of imagination and a slice of luck will be required to get the right result.
Image Credit - Lahinch GC Website
The course was initially laid out by Old Tom Morris and underwent reconstruction by Alister Mackenzie in the 1920s, after which he commented:
Lahinch will make the finest and most popular golf course that I, or I believe anyone else, ever constructed.
By the late 1990s it was in need of further work and so Martin Hawtree was chosen to conduct the redesign, which he did in the same style as Mackenzie. Therefore you will still see plenty of blind approaches and plateaued greens to keep the players on their toes, and ensuring that it can still provide a stern test to the world's very best, especially when the wind picks up.
Image Credit - Lahinch GC Website
If you happen to see goats on the course whilst watching this week, don't be alarmed. They are allowed to roam free across the links and were originally owned by a caddy who lived nearby. Over the years they have become part of the charm of the course - so much so that the Club's logo has even incorporated a goat in their honour!
Despite the fact that this would appear to be perfect preparation for the upcoming test at Royal Portrush for this year's Open, none of the big American names have chosen to make the early trip over to Europe to get fully prepared. Some are supporting the new 3M Open in Minnesota, whilst others are taking a break to recharge ahead of a busy schedule, with the next WGC event to be played at the end of July too.
Having said that, there is still no shortage of big names from the European and World game on show at Lahinch, with four of the Top 25 in the World Rankings present. 2016 Champion Jon Rahm, Louis Oosthuizen, Matt Wallace and Tommy Fleetwood are also the four favourites for the event, and will be looking for a strong week in an attempt to peak at the right time for a run at the Claret Jug.
Image Credit - Jon Rahm Twitter
There are also a number of previous winners of the event in the field. Russell Knox is seeking to become the first man since Colin Montgomerie in the mid 1990s to successfully defend this title, with Ross Fisher, Soren Kjeldsen, Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington all in attendance.
Our Betting Tips
The Favourite - Tommy Fleetwood @ 12/1
Whilst Jon Rahm is understandably the favourite with the bookies, I actually think it is the Englishman who will come out on top this week. The ball-striking machine has incredibly not won for over 18 months, despite plenty of near misses. However his consistency is never an issue, having not missed a cut for 12 months now and posting a string of really good results.
Having grown up in Southport he is one of the best when it comes to links golf, and performed well despite the added pressure of hosting at the British Masters this Spring with a T8 finish. Fleetwood is too good to have only won 4 times on the European Tour and it is about time he proved his quality again. You get the feeling that something is going to come soon, and Lahinch could be the perfect venue.
The Outsider - Julian Suri E/W @ 66/1
One of very few Americans who compete full-time on the European Tour, Suri is a talented youngster who has overcome a couple of injury problems and appears to be ready to add to his single European Tour victory achieved in 2017.
Suri rebounded well from a couple of missed cuts to post a T15 finish last week at Valderrama which should give him some confidence, and if he was looking for extra motivation then the prospect of a spot at The Open (if he fails in Final Qualifying on Tuesday) could just do it.
He finished T5 at the British Masters earlier this week, as well as Top 30s in this event and The Open at Carnoustie last year, suggesting that he is warming to links golf.
The Longshot - Andy Sullivan E/W @80/1
Sullivan has slipped off the radar in the last couple of years and finds himself down at 171st in the World Rankings, though he is a much better player than that. He has shown some promising signs over the past few weeks with finishes of T33 and T26 before cracking the Top 15 last week at Valderrama.
Sullivan has a decent record at the Irish Open, with two 6th place finishes (including last year) and two other recent Top 25s. Finishing T10 at last year's Dunhill Links also means that he is worth a shot at 80/1.