The sun’s out, the country’s almost open and normality is being restored at long last. What’s more, four modern flag-bearers of Irish golf have nailed their colours to the mast of this year’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, making July’s event at Mount Juliet one of the most meaningful on the European Tour for some time.
After a relatively lifeless affair by modern standards at Galgorm Castle in 2020 due to the pandemic, this year’s Irish Open in Co. Kilkenny is shaping up to be much more like the pre-pandemic levels of pandemonium ordinarily associated with our National Open.
That’s thanks in part to the Major boost provided by reigning Open Champion Shane Lowry, alongside fellow Major winners, Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell after all four players announced their excitement at the prospect of competing back on home soil. With some 5,000 spectators anticipated to attend each day, and three Open spots up for grabs two weeks out from the final men’s Major of 2021, the €3million celebration of Irish golf is an unmissable occasion on this summer’s sporting calendar.
The biggest draw for the home faithful come tournament week in July will perhaps be the man from the Faithful County, Lowry, who’s yet to play competitive golf in front of his home supporters since winning the Open by six shots at Royal Portrush in 2019
“I cannot wait to get back and play in front of the Irish crowds again,” said Lowry, who famously won the Irish Open as an amateur at Baltray in 2009.
“I have been really eager to do so as the Open Champion before I defend the Claret Jug and hopefully I can put on a show for them at Mount Juliet for what is sure to be a memorable week.”
Although Lowry could be forgiven for having one eye on the defence of his Claret Jug just two weeks out from Royal St George’s, the 34-year old, no stranger to the stunning Mount Juliet parkland despite never playing there in competition, will be 100% focussed on adding his name to the Irish Open trophy for the second time, and the first since turning professional.
“Mount Juliet Estate is just a lovely place and a lovely part of Ireland,” Lowry said. “It is a great venue and a great golf course. I remember going to the 2002 WGC -American Express when Tiger won.
“In mentioning Mount Juliet, I have always remembered it being the best parkland course in Ireland. It has probably been a year or two since I played the course and no doubt it is going to be a great venue and a great tournament.
“I always find that when you go to places that are used to hosting events, and while it will be 18-years since Mount Juliet has hosted a big golf tournament, I am sure they will again fully embrace it and turn it into something really big.”
Lowry missed the halfway cut at last year’s spectator-less staging at Galgorm Castle, stating prior to the tournament that, “I feel like I owe it to the Irish Open and the Tour to support the event”. Despite only playing two rounds, he left with his reputation fully intact amongst the Irish public while the likes of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell came in for criticism for their respective decisions to skip the event.
McIlroy cited a lack of spectators as one of the main reasons for giving last year’s renewal a miss but with a sizeable crowd expected at Mount Juliet, the four-time Major winner is buzzing to get back amongst his home galleries again having also opted out of the 2019 staging at Lahinch in the lead-up to the Open at Portrush.
“I am really excited to get back and play the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open,” said McIlroy, who not only hosted and won at the K Club in 2016, but donated his entire first prize cheque to charity.
“I have so many incredible memories of this event down the years, not least my victory in 2016, and I think it is going to be a pretty special week this July with the fans returning. I’m really excited to play in front of them again.”
McIlroy will return to Irish shores a winner already in 2021 having triumphed at one of his favourite stops on Tour, Quail Hollow. Outspoken with regards to the lack of atmosphere that coincided with much of his on-course struggles since Covid struck, victory at the Wells Fargo in front of a boisterous crowd supported the argument that the showman in McIlroy needs an atmosphere to perform to his best; an atmosphere he’s sure to muster in Mount Juliet.
“Yeah, it’s funny, ever since I was 16-years old, I’ve had thousands of people watch me play golf pretty much every time I teed it up, even going back to amateur golf,” he said. “Playing in that environment for 14, 15 years and then sort of going the complete opposite, it’s just different.
“I said at the time it was like playing practice rounds. It’s easy to lose concentration. You want to play in front of people and you want to feel that atmosphere. It’s unfortunate that in these times a lot of people don’t have that experience, but I am glad that we’re getting back to some sort of normalcy, and when you hit good shots and hole putts, there are claps and rewards and encouragement.
“I feel like that’s all a part of tournament golf and competitive sports at the highest level, and I’m just happy that it’s starting to come back.”
Another man who cited the no crowds policy that Covid brought about last year at Galgorm as reason to miss out on his National Open for the first time in 18 years was 2010 US Open Champion, Graeme McDowell, host of this year’s tournament. McDowell made “the very difficult decision” to skip last year’s event and instead defend his PGA Tour Corales Puntacana title in the Dominican Republic.
“Under normal circumstances defending this event would not take priority over playing my home Open, but the unprecedented circumstances make this a better option for me at this time,” McDowell said 12 months ago.
Thankfully, this July ‘GMac’ finds himself free from such quandaries as he returns to home shores hoping to add the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open title to his 11 worldwide wins.
“The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open is a tournament which is very close to my heart so I’m really excited to return in July,” said the 41-year old, who debuted at the event in 2002.
“I was disappointed not to be able to fulfil my role as host in 2020 due to the disruption of the pandemic, but this year I feel it should be a celebration of Irish golf as a whole, while also recognising the frontline heroes who have contributed so hugely during the pandemic – not about one person alone. With the strength of field, the return of the fans and a spectacular venue in Mount Juliet, it’s set to be a truly special week.”
Indeed, as McDowell points out, a percentage of tickets have been donated to key frontline workers in recognition of their dedicated work throughout the pandemic. Sure to be high on any ticket holder’s list of people to see on the Kilkenny parkland will be European Ryder Cup Captain and three-time Major winner, Padraig Harrington who, like Lowry, also missed the cut at last year’s renewal.
The 49-year old has been a revelation on the fairways this term, however, sharing fourth place alongside Lowry at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island while his appearance at his home Open in Mount Juliet will be Harrington’s 26th successive start at the event, having tasted victory once when overcoming Welshman Bradley Dredge in a play-off in 2007 – a win which proved a pre-cursor to his Open Championship victory two months later at Carnoustie.
“The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open is always such a unique occasion for golf fans across the whole island but it is sure to be an even bigger celebration this July with fans making a long-awaited return,” Harrington said. “I can’t wait to step onto the first tee at Mount Juliet and sample the atmosphere created by the home crowds.”
Believe it or not, it wasn’t always that way for Harrington. As Ireland’s leading player for many years after turning professional in 1995, the burden of home expectation often weighed heavily on Harrington’s head; the home crowd itching for a first Irish born winner of an Irish Open since John O’Leary’s famous triumph at Portmarnock in 1982.
“It affected me a huge amount early on,” Harrington admitted. “I really felt it was very off-putting - there was nothing but stress around the Irish Open.
“I interpreted it as wanting to win, and that people expected me to win, and I felt like I was letting them down. It took me a while to realise that people would actually like me to win this, they’re not disappointed if I don’t. They’re hopeful, so don’t let it be ‘I’m failing’ if I don’t win here.”
“Golf is tough to win on order and coming into an Irish Open, I was being asked to win from Thursday morning, whereas most golf tournaments, you can play Thursday, Friday, Saturday and you don’t come under pressure until the Sunday. In the Irish Open, you’re starting the tournament under the spotlight as if you’re leading, so you have to play four days as the leader, and that’s tiring.”
Harrington certainly won’t carry that burden of home expectation this time around but his standards remain as lofty as they did when he first stepped foot on an Irish Open fairway at Druids Glen in 1996; such hopes only enhanced by his best Major finish in some eight years at Kiawah Island in May.
“I’ve been much better focus-wise, much better, over the last couple of weeks,” Harrington said, who incidentally is a former Touring Professional at Mount Juliet.
“I changed my routine and I got a lot better since then. And going forward, I just need to find that one thing on the putting or whatever and yeah, I could be as physically good a player as I ever was, but there’s a lot more competition these days.”
Competition should be fierce at Mount Juliet too, especially after the R&A dangled the carrot of three additional qualifying places into The 149th Open at Royal St George’s. The Irish Open joins the Kaskada Golf Challenge in Czech Republic (1-4 July) and the Le Vaudreuil Golf Challenge in France (8-11 July) as possible avenues for Open hopefuls to explore in their efforts to get to Sandwich.
Tommy Fleetwood won’t be needing one of those three places but the Englishman is expected to challenge for his place in Irish Open history after confirming he would skip this year’s Scottish Open in favour of a trip to Mount Juliet.
The Ryder Cup star has worked his schedule to avoid playing the week before Majors this year, meaning The Renaissance Club’s loss will be Ireland’s gain in welcoming the five-time European Tour winner to Kilkenny.
“I’m trying to have a week off before every Major and then play the week before that,” said Fleetwood. “It’s difficult as you have so many great events in the summer and I clearly enjoyed The Renaissance as well, playing great there.
“Staying on site was amazing and it was actually my best event of the year last year. So, if the Scottish Open was two weeks before and the Irish Open was the week before, it would be the other way around, but I am playing the Irish Open.”
Fleetwood, who recently turned 30, continues to chase an elusive first Major having been blown away by our own Lowry in the final group at The Open at Portrush in 2019. In his pursuit of joining golf’s long list of Major winners, Fleetwood hopes his continued consistency and slight tweak of his scheduling might just prove the trick ahead of a busy year for golf.
“I didn’t really look at the schedule and go, ‘oh, I love these courses’ or ‘I want to play here’ or ‘I want to do that’,” he added. “No matter how you choose to do it, you just have to back yourself to play well every week that you play. I’ve done it that way this year, and we’ll see how that goes. It’s down to me, really.”
Although it won’t be the links preparation some players crave in the lead-up to the Open, Fleetwood et all are sure to like what they see once they step foot on Mount Juliet Estate, the luxury five-star resort which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary.
Over the past 30 years, the Jack Nicklaus Signature Design course at Mount Juliet has held an esteemed position across the Irish golfing landscape, hosting a series of prestigious, international golf events since in 1993, when Mount Juliet Estate first held the Irish Open and again in 1994 and 1995 – won by Sir Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Sam Torrance, respectively.
In 1997, Mount Juliet Estate played host to Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, a challenge match between Tom Watson and Fred Couples, won by the latter. In 2002 and 2004, the famous parkland course again hosted the world’s best players for the WGC-American Express Championship. Tiger Woods emerged victorious in 2002, beating Retief Goosen – who shares the Mount Juliet Estate course record with Sergio Garcia – by one stroke, while Ernie Els claimed the 2004 trophy, overcoming another European Tour legend in Thomas Bjørn by one shot.
“I’ve played Mount Juliet many times and obviously won there in 2004,” Els said. “Hospitality-wise, golf course-wise, the people, everybody there, it’s just awesome and it’s been wonderful to play there. Congratulations on 30 years, have a wonderful time and please have a Guinness on me if you don’t mind.”
One thing’s certain, those lucky enough to snatch a ticket to this year’s Irish Open won’t need any encouragement on the drinks front, Ernie. This summer may lack the unrestricted levels of the 2019 edition of the tournament where Paul McGinley provided a festival atmosphere of golf for the then Rolex Series event at Lahinch, but Mount Juliet is sure to represent a real step forward for the Irish Open, and a big stride back in the right direction for a Tour stop worthy of top billing.