Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry lead home challenge for Irish Open glory

Defending champion Adrian Meronk has plenty of motivation at the K Club following his Ryder Cup disappointment

Rory McIlroy looks on during the Pro-Am prior to the Horizon Irish Open at The K Club in Straffan, Co Kildare. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Getty Images

The great collective tore lumps out of the range, players positioned in a perfectly straight line and each one digging deep and leaving dirty earth as a reminder of their work.

On the range, before the tournament, everyone looks invincible with pure swings and Trackman data fuelling heads and swelling egos with numbers and trajectories; all of which count for nought once scorecards are put into back pockets and every stroke counts.

Of those 156 players who set out in a bid to land this latest edition of the Horizon Irish Open here on the Palmer North Course, the quality is clear and obvious: no fewer than 21 of them have won on the DP World Tour this season, eight currently feature in the world’s top-50 and six of them are past champions of this old championship. There’s a lot of know-how, a lot of ambition.

Throw in a few PGA Tour players – among them Billy Horschel, Min Woo Lee and Tom Hoge – ocean hopping, and there is very definitely star appeal about what is set to unfold in the coming days with full house signs set for the weekend.


For old and young, winners and those only starting out, the Irish Open, even without its Rolex status any more, is a prized title on the European circuit, with Adrian Meronk – who won last year at Mount Juliet – seeking to use the defence as some form of redemption for his failure to get a European Ryder Cup wild card pick.

As the Pole put it of the emotions that hit him on receiving the negative news from Luke Donald when on a train, “shock to sadness to anger . . . now, I’m trying to turn it into motivation. Obviously it’s a hard one to swallow. I thought I’d done enough to be on the team but it is what it is. I wish them good luck and I will just focus on my game and move forward.”

At least Meronk would seem to have got over the anger stage – “I talked to my parents and my psychologist, my coach, and a lot of players on tour and coaches, caddies, and they have all been supportive,” he admitted – to the point where he gets an immediate opportunity to move on with his life and chase ambitions on a course in pristine condition and, would you believe it, the promise of actual sunshine for the tournament’s duration.

Nobody is more glad of that sunshine than Rory McIlroy, who was troubled with a muscular injury in his back at the Tour Championship, the finale to the FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour last month. He hasn’t played since.

“It’s okay. I would say it’s at 90 per cent, 95 per cent. It’s not 100 per cent better. But it’s not preventing me from doing anything I want to do. Just being a little mindful, I guess,” said McIlroy, who got physiotherapy treatment and did rehab exercises as well as rest.

Adrian Meronk: will move on from the disappointment of missing out on the Ryder Cup as he defends his Irish Open title at the K Club. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

In a cautious return to playing, McIlroy actually only got back to hitting balls last Saturday week and then spent a few days in London last week before travelling here to a course where he won the title in 2016.

McIlroy had 10 straight top-10s on the PGA Tour up to and including the Tour Championship and, clearly, the world number two is favourite. It is rarely any other way. And he assessed the course set-up as being not dissimilar to what he would expect to find in Marco Simone for the Ryder Cup:

“It’s set up pretty close to what I think we’re going to face in Rome in a few weeks’ time. You’ve got to drive it well here. The rough is very thick, so there is very much a premium on getting the ball in play off the tee. But then from there, it’s not the longest golf course in the world, so you can score. But to me, it’s all about putting the ball in play off the tee here this week because the rough is pretty penal.”

McIlroy – who heads the Race to Dubai order of merit is a two-time winner on the DP World Tour this season, in the Dubai Desert Classic and the Genesis Scottish Open – and, of the other eight Irishmen in the field, only Tom McKibbin, winner of the Porsche European Open, has also tasted a victory.

As such, it would seem like no better time for Shane Lowry – with the weight of Ryder Cup qualifying lifted – to get back contending and potentially win on a course which he claimed to be in “great condition” adding: “You can see the work they’ve put in here over the years. There’s a lot of rough. With the fairways being firm, they’re going to be harder to hit. The place is in incredible condition and it is all set up for a great week.”

Lowry – one of those six past winners – would love to add another win as a professional to the title he claimed as an amateur in 2009.

“Fourteen years? I’m obviously very grateful for the career that I’ve had so far. I feel like I’ve got to achieve a lot going forward,” said Lowry of that ambition still burning.

He’s not alone. It should be a good one.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times