Ben Coley capped an excellent June with more place money in Germany. Get his selections for an exciting edition of the Irish Open.
2pts e.w. Sam Horsfield at 25/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Laurie Canter at 50/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Jordan Smith at 66/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Eddie Pepperell at 90/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Adri Arnaus at 100/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Aaron Rai at 100/1 (BoyleSports 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)
For the 13th time in the last 15 renewals, Rory McIlroy heads back home to play in the Irish Open. Since 2008, Florida-based McIlroy has missed precisely two editions, one of which came during a global pandemic and just weeks after he became a father. His foundation has also hosted four of them.
It's an event in which the distractions of hosting and the vagaries of links golf saw him miss three cuts in succession from 2013, before he produced some of the most memorable shots of his career to win at the K Club in 2016. Then he gave every penny of his winner's cheque to three local charities. Earlier in the week, he had raised more by taking part in 'An Evening With Rory McIlroy and Sir Alex Ferguson'.
Not bad for someone who, according to those who are blinded by their right to not particularly like the finest European golfer of his generation, hasn't done enough for his sport or the island on which he learned to play it.
McIlroy should find that Mount Juliet, which hosts this tournament for the first time since 1995, and tour-level golf for the first time since 2004, is similarly suitable. Designed by Jack Nicklaus, this parkland par 72 is known for its immaculate conditioning, and might be called American in style. That was the view of Chris DiMarco, who played well here when Tiger Woods won the WGC-American Express, and it's hard to escape the notion that a modern, heavily-bunkered and water-laden course is not exactly Irish in the most traditional sense.
That isn't meant as a criticism, and should ensure a bold bid from the 5/1 favourite, who produced his best tee-to-green performance since the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions when seventh at Torrey Pines last time. McIlroy won that event in China, and if he can avoid the sort of putting display that proved costly in both the US Open and the PGA Championship, there is every chance he can win this title for a second time, just as Jon Rahm has already done.
With Rahm understandably absent, another former winner rates the biggest threat. That man is Shane Lowry, who might've been better served by a seaside test but nevertheless arrives in excellent form. He disappointed as favourite at Galgorm Castle back in September, but had flown in from the US Open and didn't sound like he really wanted to be playing. To his credit, Lowry honoured his commitment to the event, and he might be rewarded by adding a professional win here to his amateur heroics back in 2009.
We saw last week through Viktor Hovland, just as we'd seen in the Middle East through Tyrrell Hatton, Paul Casey and Dustin Johnson, that when world-class PGA Tour regulars touch down in Europe, they often dominate. The same could well happen at Mount Juliet, particularly if the threat of rain means a softened, easier course but doesn't affect play too badly. McIlroy and Lowry are likely to be hard to keep out of the frame.
Forced to choose it would be the favourite, who drove it better at Torrey Pines than he has in a while and hit some fabulous approach shots, too. That kind of tee-to-green display would make him really hard to beat and a best of 11/2 is fair in what's not a deep field, especially as he's won stronger events, including on the PGA Tour, at closer to the 3/1 mark.
If you do want to side with him, look for a price on a wire-to-wire win, something he's done three times in his career. Certainly it's not unreasonable to expect another fast start following an opening 64 in Abu Dhabi, his only European Tour start since 2019, and from there he'll be hard to shift.
However with eight or even 10 places on offer, and some unknowns given we've not seen the course in so long, I can't quite muster the enthusiasm to get stuck in win-only. Instead, I'll give SAM HORSFIELD another chance after he finished a frustrating fifth in Germany last week.
Horsfield led after round one, and then conspired to shoot a second-round 77 which effectively ended his chance. In the end, having been fourth in round three scoring and sixth on Sunday, he shared fifth with five others when he ought to have been the one asking questions of Hovland.
Giving the Norwegian 10 shots on Friday and losing by six shows how well Horsfield played for the most part and while that's back-to-back events in which he's failed to capitalise on an opening 64, ultimately he is playing at a level which means he can go close even with a couple of disasters along the way.
Eradicate those, and the 24-year-old will go close to adding to two wins at similarly modern, resort-style courses last year, and I'm keen to keep siding with him at this kind of price when in this kind of form, particularly with his long-game having been excellent. That was even true for most of round two, where a decent day with the putter could've kept things respectable.
Some will find patience wearing thin, but personally having put up Horsfield three times this year and had him finish third, fourth and fifth, I'm inclined to forgive him for these mishaps which are common in players as young, bold and aggressive.
It may also be that the BMW International Open at Eichenried is a good guide to this. As well as being a fairly flat, parkland course built for the modern version of the sport, it's thrown up some interesting ties with Mount Juliet in the past. In 2004, Ernie Els and Thomas Bjorn duelled for the WGC here, and they did the same at Eichenried nine years later. David Howell and Niclas Fasth both played really well in the WGC and have won in Munich, with Retief Goosen and Sergio Garcia also excelling there.
For that reason I had to consider Horsfield, Martin Kaymer and Antoine Rozner, last week's three strongest fancies, and it's Horsfield who looks the one at the prices.
Kaymer's final-round 64 really could spell a return to his prolific best, which has been on the cards for two years now. Certainly the putt he holed on the 18th meant a lot to him, even if it wasn't quite enough. "When you need to make them, that was a putt that I made," he said. "I haven’t felt that in a long time."
All of the German's best form lately has come on parkland layouts like this one and, knowing there are Open places up for grabs, he looks set for another big week. My only reservation is the price, which feels right on the limit at 20/1, and without the benefit of playing at a course on which he's won before I have to leave him out.
We often talk about Nicklaus courses as wide enough off the tee and getting harder thereafter, which seems a fair assessment of this one. It should also favour those with a bit of extra punch from the tee because to those players, all four par-fives may well be within reach, whereas sometimes brutally long par-fives can actually turn things into a competition of wedges.
With that in mind I'll give LAURIE CANTER another go after he showed flashes in the Porsche European Open, where he entered the last of just three rounds within sight of the leaders.
Although disappointing in the end, ultimately his form since a rust-shedding fortnight in the Canary Islands reads 30-8-29 and one of the stars of 2020 should find comfort at a course which ought to be easier than Galgorm Castle, where he was 14th last autumn.
Arguably the standout driver on the European Tour, Canter's approach play has been back on track lately and with the putter also warming up through eighth in Denmark and that effort last time at Green Eagle, he looks on the cusp of the sort of form which saw him bag five top-five finishes in 11 starts through the end of last year and into this.
His form at Celtic Manor and in the Italian Open, as well as when 10th in the Hero Open and 13th in the UK Championship at a course with Nicklaus fingerprints all stacks up nicely and as with Horsfield, he has bags of scope to improve again.
JORDAN SMITH is another of the best ball-strikers around and he's started to play really well again, finishing 17th, third and 11th before missing the cut in the US Open.
Before that he'd dropped a few hints in the Canaries, under conditions far easier than he'd like, and with that troublesome putter of his looking a little better he might be able to capitalise on the sort of driving which saw him rank first in Denmark and third at Green Eagle.
It makes sense that he played far better at Galgorm Castle, a parkland course in Northern Ireland, than he had on several links layouts in this event previously, and he's long been adept at keeping mistakes off the card — key to the victories of Woods and Els towards the start of the century.
Third place at Eichenried is a form line I like and at 66/1 he's preferred to Andrew Johnston, whose iron play has been strong for a few weeks now and also earns him a place on the shortlist.
Probably the strongest selection relative to price, EDDIE PEPPERELL has to make the staking plan.
Missing the cut at Eichenried isn't a major worry as his form there now reads 58-MC-MC, and while I'm interested in that potential for correlation, it shouldn't exclude those who struggle in Munich from calculations.
Pepperell has long been at his best closer to home, as a winner of the British Masters who has threatened in that event subsequently, as well as at Wentworth and in the Irish, Scottish and Welsh opens down the years. In fact, six of the top 10 performances of his career have come in the UK and Ireland and with fans back in attendance, he might soon return to the form which saw him feature in the final group at the Belfry recently.
The signs are certainly there, as he's continued to produce good strokes-gained approach figures, which is key to his game. I am a little worried that Mount Juliet might demand more drivers than he likes to hit, but it also offers width and if he can perform to something like field average off the tee, the rest of his game is good enough to win a third European Tour title.
Pepperell is in fact half Irish, which might to some degree explain an excellent record in this event, and while probably more effective on links courses like Royal County Down (second) or Lahinch (fourth), he also has a top-10 finish at the K Club to his name.
"I love the event. It's a proper event," he said in 2018. "There's lots of people about and you feel like you're performing, I guess. I received great support from the fans in Ireland. I love Irish people. They are so much fun. It's a great country. Okay, they get a bit too much rain, but it's brilliant. Couldn't ask for much more from the event."
Another small factor to consider is the fact that Open places are up for grabs, and Pepperell qualified for the 2015 edition via this event, before repeating the trick in the 2018 Scottish Open. A links-loving Englishman who has made the cut on all three Open appearances, he'd love to be at Sandwich in a couple of weeks and is capable of taking this opportunity to earn an invite.
Put up on these pages at 50/1 for the British Masters, he's now almost double the price and while that reflects a stronger field, it's also the result of missing the cut in Munich. His iron play remained good, however, and if anything I anticipate he feels like he's taken steps in the right direction since holding the 54-hole lead three starts ago.
While plenty made the shortlist including Rozner, Adrian Otaegui and Sean Crocker, whose putting issues are simply too significant to overlook, it's Mike Lorenzo Vera who I find hardest to omit. The Frenchman has started to hit his irons as well as he did when contending in the DP World Tour Championship in 2019, and again in strong fields early in 2020, and if his putter returns to where it usually is he'll go close sometime soon.
However, he does remain a longstanding maiden and I prefer the claims of ADRI ARNAUS and AARON RAI at similar prices.
The worry with Arnaus is that he doesn't appear to be at his best, particularly from tee-to-green, but back-to-back top-10 finishes in May seemingly came out of nowhere under similar circumstances and confirm once more that he's very much in and out.
On a going week, he has the talent to compete with even the likes of McIlroy and Lowry and I'm hopeful that seeing longtime friend Jon Rahm win the US Open will help spark something, as could the fact that he's now set to tee up alongside Rahm in the Olympics this summer.
I can also forgive form at Green Eagle, which is brutally hard and was a three-round event played on no preparation, and the Scandinavian Mixed, which was firm, fast and never really likely to suit. He's better judged on efforts such as sixth at Leopard Creek and fifth in Italy, both of which could correlate nicely with this.
Having played well for 15th and 23rd in the last two editions, latterly let down by a rogue putter which seems to have come alive now, Arnaus could be a big runner here if he's ironed out those issues in his ball-striking over the last couple of weeks.
As for Rai, his problems are closer to the hole, with several short misses undermining some solid work in Sweden.
The major positive there was further improvement in his approach play, enough to rank sixth in the field, and he's got better and better in that department since returning from the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.
Mid-tier scoring conditions and a parkland test look ideal for a player with two wins in his last 50 or so European Tour starts, and he was a little unlucky not to have captured this title last year at Galgorm Castle when mugged by a charging John Catlin.
Of course, had he won there he may not have gone on to defeat Tommy Fleetwood in a play-off for the Scottish Open so there's no hangover expected and he might be capable of making amends anyway.
Posted at 1900 BST on 28/06/21
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