Varied home team poised to mount challenge at Mount Juliet

McIlroy and Lowry lead 16-strong contingent bidding for a home victory in Irish Open

Rory McIlroy: one of the main  attractions at the Irish Open in Mount Juliet. Photograph: Getty Images

Rory McIlroy: one of the main attractions at the Irish Open in Mount Juliet. Photograph: Getty Images

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Between the jigs and the reels, from Major winners to one making his professional debut on a sponsor’s invitation, a home contingent of 16 players are numbered in the 156-man field for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open which takes place at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Mount Juliet course in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, starting on Thursday.

While the headline acts are Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, returning to European shores for the first time this season after prioritising their schedules to the PGA Tour Stateside for the first half of the season, the mix of home-brewed talent tick a number of boxes: apart from 10 who have tour cards (be it on the PGA Tour or European Tour, or both, or on the Challenge Tour), there are also three club professionals, two amateurs and, one, Rowan Lester, setting out on his professional journey.

McIlroy and Lowry are returning to tournament play for the first time since the US Open earlier this month, while Graeme McDowell – who last played in the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial last month, where he missed a third successive cut – will be hoping that a return to home shores will also spark an improvement in form.

McDowell is not yet exempt for the British Open at Royal St Georges next month but can still play his way in, with three places in that field available at Mount Juliet to players who haven’t yet earned a ticket.

McDowell – announced along with Martin Kaymer last week as one of Pádraig Harrington’s vice-captains for the Ryder Cup – will have a second bite of the cherry at next week’s Scottish Open, although just getting competitive again after a poor run of form would seem to be the priority.

Perhaps that confirmation of his vice-captaincy will provide a similar spur to McDowell as it did Kaymer, who finished runner-up to Viktor Hovland in the BMW International in Munich.

Kaymer, also in the field at Mount Juliet, may yet even play his way into a playing role rather than as an assistant.

“Of course I would like to participate [in the Ryder Cup] as a player. As I said before, it’s a huge honour to be a vice-captain. But I would like to give everything I have until Wentworth, until it’s over. If it’s enough I take it as a massive, massive bonus, especially the way I’ve played the last two or three years.

“But if I’m in great form and I can put myself in contention a few more times until then, maybe Pádraig has something to think about,” said the German.

Harrington for his part will be aiming to bounce back from a missed cut in Munich. The Dubliner – who had played on the PGA Tour for much of the season, the highlight being a tied-fourth finish in the USPGA Championship – put his failure to make the final two rounds down to working on his game during a short break at home.

Mentally sharp

“It was typical of me. I had a bit of time off, did a bit of practice and struggled to take that practice into play. It always takes me a little while and I just wasn’t sharp, wasn’t mentally sharp,” conceded Harrington.

The full contingent of Irish players competing at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open is: McIlroy, Lowry, McDowell, Harrington, Jonathan Caldwell, Cormac Sharvin, Niall Kearney, Paul Dunne, Gavin Moynihan, Robin Dawson, Rowan Lester, current Irish PGA champion Simon Thornton, Colm Moriarty, Neil O Briain and amateurs Mark Power and Caolan Rafferty.

Indeed, there is a tidy bit of symmetry between the Irish Open’s return to Mount Juliet and the last time it was staged there, in 1995. On that occasions, Mark Power’s father, Eddie, was one of the amateurs in the field.

With sponsor’s exemptions in the Irish Open limited to six (going to Kearney, Dunne, Moynihan, Dawson, Lester and Takumi Kanaya, who has moved into the top-100 in the world on the back of three wins on the Japanese Tour), the Kaskada Challenge in the Czech republic provides a competitive out for Conor Purcell, David Carey and Michael Hoey.

Séamus Power, meanwhile, is fourth reserve ahead of the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit on the PGA Tour. Seeking to get into the FedEx Cup top-125 by the conclusion of the regular season in order to regain his tour card stateside, the Waterford man’s tied-19th finish in the Travelers moved him from 166th to 159th in the updated rankings.

On the LPGA Tour, Stephanie Meadow will aim to arrest a run of missed cuts in the Volunteers of America Classic in Texas. Meadow has missed cuts in each of her last four outings , a run of poor form that started at the US Open and continued at the Mediheal Championship, the Meijer Classic and the KPMG PGA.

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