Risk-reward nature of The K Club’s final stretch will likely decide Irish Open winner

In 2016, Rory McIlroy played two brilliant second shots to the par-five 16th and 18th holes on the way to victory

Rory McIlroy hits his second shot on the par-five 16th hole during the final round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at The K Club in 2016. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The configuration of the North Course at The K Club flip flops like a pancake. One layout for the members, another for the tour players when they come visiting. The first becomes the 10th, the 10th becomes the first with the only unchanged parts being the ninth and the 18th.

For this Horizon Irish Open, the North Course championship layout – or, to go old school, Palmer Course as verified by Arnie’s elegant statue near the practice putting green – is back in play. It means that the finishing stretch of holes features a run along the river Liffey for the par-five 16th, across the bend in the river on the 17th and finally another risk-reward par-five 18th hole to finish.

This stretch of golfing terrain was immortalised by Rory McIlroy’s closure en route to winning the Irish Open in 2016 when, even now, the memory of the approach shots he hit, firstly, to the 16th green and, finally, to the 18th, is the stuff of legend.

The fairway approach to inside three feet to set up a closing eagle to seal the deal was actually voted as the Shot of the Year on the European Tour that year.


Yet, some would beg to differ with that verdict.

Indeed, at the time, McIlroy responded to a comment about his shot into 18 by saying, “If you’re a real golfer, you’d appreciate the 16th.”

The 16th is a hole of 595 yards that, for most human beings, would require a lay-up short of the river. Back on that Sunday afternoon, a day which even included the occasional hail shower, McIlroy was in a duel with Russell Knox and – chasing the Scot – hit a long tee-shot that smacked of perfection.

“I never really planned to go for the green in two off the back tee on 16, but after that tee shot, I really didn’t have any option,” said McIlroy.

The par-five 18th hole on the North Course at The K Club. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

“I only had 238 yards to the front, 273 to the pin. Pin is on 35. It was just a perfect three-wood. It was slightly into the wind. I knew if I really flushed it, I would be able to get it pin-high. But if I just hit a good one, solid shot, it was going to end up where it did. So just one of those shots, you pick your target, you make a good, full, committed swing at it, and thankfully it worked out for me,” said McIlroy who birdied to Knox’s bogey.

Now, seven years later, Pádraig Harrington in recalling Mcilroy’s finish – birdie-par-eagle – would back up the 2016 winner’s belief that the approach on the 16th outdid the 18th.

“The 16th is probably one of the greatest golf shots ever hit. If I was Russell Knox standing on that fairway, I would have clapped, because if you have to hit a wedge to the back pin on that hole, it’s incredibly difficult. It’s probably the hardest golf shot, a wedge in there, let alone hitting a wood in there, and if he misses the shot, the tournament is over. Russell Knox has it won.

“That must be one of the hardest shots to be on the receiving end of because the difficulty level on pulling it off at that moment. Your back is to the wall and you have to hit the shot, but the shot at 18, I’m sure, not even close to the shot into 16. I would have fallen into the river if I’d been Russell Knox ... poor Russell Knox.”

The risk-reward nature of the revised finishing holes for those who dare is clear and obvious, but the stretch also includes the par-four 17th that is played off a tee box to a crescent-shaped fairway with the river down the left.

It is where Thomas Bjorn – with victory in touching distance – took an 11 in the final round of the Smurfit European Open, where the Dane hit three balls into the water off the tee before finally finding dry land with his fourth ball – his seventh shot – as the treacherous stretch took another victim.

“[Number] 17 is one of the most difficult tee shots you’ll ever hit. I think the finish is [so tough], you start on 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, like every hole is a chance but every hole is a chance for bogey, as well. It’s just a good golf course. It’s stood the test of time, which is great,” said Shane Lowry.

As history has shown, that stretch of holes is where titles are won and lost. Expect more drama.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times