Irish Masters hopefuls drinking in last chance saloon
Paul Dunne, Shane Lowry, Pádraig Harrington and Séamus Power all need to win
Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry have yet to qualify for next week’s US Masters at Augusta. Photograph: Getty Images
The last chance saloon could conceivably open its doors to someone, with the final ticket to the US Masters going to the winner of this week’s Houston Open . . . if not previously exempt! And, for a quartet of Irish players, it provides further incentive - if any such inducement were needed - to chase a victory, at a tournament which is playing the role of warm-up to Augusta for the last time.
With Paul Dunne’s top-five finish in the Corales Championship in the Dominican Republic (where he played on a sponsor’s invitation) earning him a late place in the field for Houston, his addition bolsters the Irish contingent in the Texan city to four where he joins Shane Lowry, Pádraig Harrington and Séamus Power.
Dunne - who has moved to 78th in the latest world rankings - and Power, in his second season with a full card, secured their best-ever finishes on the PGA Tour when tying for fifth in the Dominican Republic, a tournament played against the WGC Dell Matchplay.
Rory McIlroy, though, has bypassed Houston and instead will make a reconnaissance visit to Augusta National ahead of the Masters where he will be seeking to complete the career Grand Slam.
McIlroy and caddie Harry Diamond have factored in a two-day trip - playing the course on Wednesday and Thursday - having admitted his playing schedule of six tournaments in seven weeks was “one too many,” claiming his win in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which ended a near 18-month winless drought, and the “mental energy” expended had led to fatigue at the WGC Matchplay.
While McIlroy uses this week to get some downtime while also getting re-acquainted with Augusta ahead of the Masters, the four Irish players competing in Houston - which is set to lose out to the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio as the stop-off tournament ahead of the Masters from next year - will be bidding for that golden ticket, with the last exemption up for grabs. They’re not alone in seeking a late invitation to the season’s first Major, with Ian Poulter - up to 51st in the world but one shy of the top-50 cut-off point which fell on Monday - among those in the same boat.
Power’s top-five finish in the Corales Championship came after a run of four successive missed cuts (Farmers Insurance, Pebble Beach, Honda Classic and Valspar Championship) but the 48.43 points he earned moved him up to 117th in the latest FedEx Cup standings.
Of his season to date, the Waterford man observed: “It’s been up and down, a little bit disappointing . . . especially the last couple of tournaments (before the Corales) hadn’t gone as well as I would have liked. But it’s always a work in progress and I’m trying to get some things turned around.”
Power, who has visited Augusta National as a spectator, and Dunne have yet to play in the Masters but Lowry has made it there through the world’s top-50 route for the past three years, while Harrington has competed in the Major on no fewer than 15 times through his career, most recently in 2015.
McIlroy isn’t the only player skipping Houston to take in Augusta. Justin Thomas, who has moved to within half-a-point of Dustin Johnson at the top of the world rankings, has also made plans for a visit. “I’ll have two productive days of work and hang out with some good friends and try to learn some new things about the course, go home and get some rest and get ready,” said Thomas, who claimed a maiden Major with victory in the US PGA last August.
Meanwhile, the PGA of America has confirmed Hazeltine - site of the 2016 match - will become the first course in the United States to host the Ryder Cup for a second time. Hazeltine will stage the 2028 match, which means that all American venues up to the Olympic Club in 2032 have been set in stone. Whistling Straits (2020) and Bethpage Black (2024) had previously been pencilled in to stage the event.