World No.2 Rory McIlroy is the biggest draw at this week's Irish Open, which is being staged for the first time at the famed Royal Portrush Golf Club.
It was here that a 16-year-old McIlroy shot a 61 in the North of Ireland Amateur Open but with wind and rain forecast this week he might be grateful for a 71, especially as he's been well out of form of late, missing four of his last five cuts and blowing a winning lead in the other. Yet despite all his troubles, he's no bigger than 7/1 to beat a quality field that includes his big chum Graeme McDowell (10/1 general), and Padraig Harrington (12/1 Totesport), who won this event when it was played at Adare Manor in 2007. There's plenty of strength in depth too and it's reassuring to see that some bookmakers have enhanced their place terms, with Ladbrokes, Paddy Power, Blue Square, Sportingbet and bet365 all paying out on six places.
Anyone watching on TV this week is in for a treat as the par-72 Dunluce (the Club's Championship links course) is by all accounts an absolute stunner with views of the Atlantic Ocean on almost every hole. Such holes as 'White Rock', with it's green perched on the cliff edge, and 'Calamity Corner', a par three which requires a tee shot across a ravine, will make for compulsive viewing, and some inclement weather will only add to the drama of it all. The golf will not necessarily be pretty, though, and it will be a case of "when the going gets tough" with only those players with proven links form worthy of serious consideration.
My Three Against the Field:-
Padraig Harrington @ 11/1 Paddy Power (1/4 odds, six places)
Step forward the Irishman who is to links golf what ducks are to water. The winner of back-to-back Opens at Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale in 2007-08 and two Alfred Dunhill Links Championships, no-one will relish this week's test more. He will also take plenty of encouragement from some solid performances in recent months, most notably eighth place at the Masters and a fast-finishing fourth at the US Open just two weeks ago. That suggests he's very close to his best and he more often than not shows his best form in this event as in addition to winning it 2007, he's posted a further four top-six finishes. OK, that's all factored into his price but I'd still much rather be with him than McIlroy, who is woefully out of form and is a self-confessed fair weather golfer, and McDowell, who might find the expectations that come with playing in his home town too much.
Chris Wood @ 40/1 Sportingbet (1/4 odds, six places)
I toyed with the idea of putting up Paul Lawrie as my second pick as like Harrington, he loves links golf (he too has won an Open at Carnoustie and an Alfred Dunhill), but the superior price on Wood swung it. And what a steal of a price too considering he's in great form - he's coming of third place at the BMW and has not finished outside the top-25 in his last three starts - and has solid links form in the bank, having finished top-five in two recent Opens. His form in this event is highly encouraging too with two top-10s from just three career starts, and I reckon a maiden win is very much on the cards following on from that of his chum Danny Willett in Germany last week. Like Willett, Wood has long threatened to break-through and has admittedly blown a few chances along the way, but his Sunday play is looking far more assured this season, as he showed when pushing Thorbjorn Oleson all the way when runner-up in Sicily (played on a links-style course) and nearly making last week's playoff with birdies at 15 and 16.
Shane Lowry @ 80/1 Sportingbet (1/4 odds, six places)
The Irishman has been trying to follow-up his 2009 Irish Open win at a rain-lashed Baltray for three years and he's had a few near misses along the way, but this week affords him a good chance of a second Tour victory. Granted, you have to forgive him three missed cuts in a row and his last top-six finish was back in early April at the Sicilian Open (spot the theme), but links golf and bad weather bring out the best in the man from County Offaly and he will have some fond memories of Royal Portrush, having won the North of Ireland Amateur here in 2007. With the spotlight on the bigger names in the field, I reckon he could well sneak under the radar (like he did in 2009) and the 80/1 looks great value considering he's as short as 40s in a place.
Padraig Harrington 2pts each-way @ 11/1 Paddy Power (1/4 odds, six places)
Chris Wood 1pt each-way @ 40/1 Sportingbet (1/4 odds, six places)
Shane Lowry 0.75pt each-way @ 80/1 Sportingbet (1/4 odds, six places)
Shane Lowry Top 10 Finish 1.5pts @ 13/2 Sportingbet