Irish Open: Calm weather won't stop Lahinch from proving a test
Rahm confident his temperament allows him to adapt to different challenges of links golf
England’s Tommy Fleetwood on the seventh tee during the pro-am before the Irish Open at Lahinch. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
A long-time member of the host club put it succinctly about the lack of any real wind in these parts. “You wouldn’t even put your washing out, there’d be no drying,” came the aside.
And while a plentiful supply of wild air whipping in off the Atlantic would normally act as one of the links’ main defences, whoever wins the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open will still have to conquer a quality course, with the rough up, and a strong field.
Sure, the mysterious disappearance of wind, as forecast for the entire tournament, will take second guessing out of the equation in terms of club selection and judging yardages. Yet there are sufficient intangibles – among them the quirkiness of blind shots – to ensure a supreme examination on a course in pristine condition, with the capacity for some tricky pin placements to add to the torment.
And there’s also the nuances of links golf to contend with, as Jon Rahm – the world number 11 and top-ranked player in the field – put it: “It’s the fact you are shooting to a target, maybe a flag, maybe a piece of fescue, maybe a rock...it’s hard to do, to imagine a certain shot and trajectory.
“There’s a lot of things going on. That’s why you need to really commit to the shot that you have in mind, and put a good swing on it.”
He has learned the craft fast. Rahm, a winner of this title two years ago at Portstewart, has certainly managed to get a grasp on the different demands of links golf and, having finished third at the US Open and second at the Andalucia Masters in his two most recent appearances, is probably the form player and favourite to again lift the Waterford Crystal trophy.
“I think I’m more mature,” added Rahm of controlling his on-course temperament to enable him to adapt to different challenges.
The Spaniard will not have faced a challenge such as that of Lahinch before, a course which retains the character of old-course design with the fingerprints of Old Tom Morris and Alister MacKenzie on the layout. It has a run of blind shots to the greens on the Klondyke and the Dell and to the fairways on the sixth and seventh, a stretch of holes which would test the patience of a saint.
In terms of quality there is plenty of it: four players from the world’s top 25 – among them Race to Dubai leader Matt Wallace – and 12 from inside the world’s top 50, one of them Shane Lowry, who can claim an edge in local knowledge on all of the invaders.
of the 13 Irish players in the 156-man field a number have tasted success back in their amateur days on this very links: Pádraig Harrington (1995 Irish Close), Darren Clarke (1990 South of Ireland) and Graeme McDowell (2000 South of Ireland). All, admittedly, before Martin Hawtree’s sympathetic upgrading. But that winning feeling is worth bottling.
Accuracy off the tee is the starting point for one and all. This makes McDowell – on a decent run of form and without the extra pressure of tying down his place at the British Open at Royal Portrush – a strong candidate to finally tick that box of winning an Irish Open as he edges towards the age of 40.
By then who knows? He could replicate that summer of 2000 when he won the South of Ireland at Lahinch and the Irish Close at Portrush. Only this time the Irish Open and the Claret Jug would be prizes of greater significance.
Of how he has changed in nearly 20 years, McDowell – speaking of himself in the third person - replied: “I think he’s certainly a lot smarter these days than he was maybe 19 years ago. I was just back from my first year in college in the States and definitely starting to develop this accent a little bit!”
McDowell’s game has improved immeasurably this season, one which he started in 238th in the world rankings and has since moved up to 91st and in sight of that top 50 place which provides exemptions into WGCs and Majors.
“To win at Lahinch and Portrush again this summer, that would be special. That would be a pretty cool way to get myself back to where I want to be in this sport. I certainly feel like I’m playing well enough to do it.”
Part of tournament host Paul McGinley’s intention was to have the course set-up similar to what players will face in just over a fortnight’s time in the British Open at Royal Portrush. The rough here isn’t as heavy, but Harrington believes the similarity is sufficient.
“You’ve got pretty narrow fairways, good approach shots that sweep towards the hole at times, bad approach shots that leave you struggling...it’s not thinking this hole is a brute of a hole and you can’t play it, but if you play it well there are birdies to be made. If you don’t play it well there’s some more trouble.”
And that conundrum of links golf, with its nuances and bounces, for better or for worse, is what – even in the absence of any wind of note – will pose the examination for every player.