Five big questions for the Irish on the pro circuits in 2023

Mark McGowan
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Rory McIlroy reacts after chipping in for birdie from the bunker on the 18th green during the final round of the Masters (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

1. Will Rory McIlroy win a fifth major?

The perpetual ‘big’ question. There are no reminders needed that Rory has now gone eight successive seasons without landing a big one, having nailed four in the four prior, but yet, here I am reminding you anyway.

There’s no denying that 2022 was a great year; three PGA Tour wins, a return to the top of the world rankings, and almost $45 million in earnings before endorsements, but the near misses at major championships, and at The Open in particular, may be the prevailing memories.

It’s often said that McIlroy is a victim of his own success, but it’s worth repeating. There’s not another golfer on the planet who wouldn’t be satisfied with the year Rory had, but he’s moved into a stratosphere all his own – one where major triumphs are now the be-all and end-all.

Augusta National, and the grand-slam, is obviously the Holy Grail in terms of individual achievement, but there’s scar-tissue and the intensity of the spotlight to consider. Too often, Rory has been sluggish out of the gates, leaving himself too much ground to cover and a late charge up the leaderboard gives the false impression of another near miss. Yes, with his length, high ball flight, and short game prowess – one of the most under-rated aspects of McIlroy’s game – he has all the tools to tame the Georgian beast, but he has to deliver for four consecutive rounds. If he’s even a little off with any facet of his game, and the likes of a Scottie Scheffler or Justin Thomas turn up with all guns blazing, he won’t get it done.

The same goes for all majors, really. The margins at the top of the game are so fine, that more than 60% of any major field are potential winners if they put four good rounds together. Take last year’s PGA Championship, for example. Justin Thomas was the eventual winner but were it not for a 72nd hole nightmare for Mito Pereira, Thomas’ championship would’ve had the ‘late charge, but too late’ stigma that are attached to so many of McIlroy’s. And who would’ve picked Pereira as the likely winner pre-tournament?

This year’s PGA is at Oak Hill in Rochester, New York, the US Open is at L.A. Country Club, and the Open Championship is at Royal Liverpool. The weather is likely to strongly dictate how each of these play, but regardless, if McIlroy brings something close to his best to any them, he’ll give himself every opportunity.

But the bookies, who deal in probability, still have him odds against. You can currently get 21/10 on Rory topping the pile in any of this year’s majors, and they aren’t known for their generosity. I still think he’ll add to his four titles, but will it be this year?

2. Will Leona Maguire break into the World’s Top 5? 

Quite where to set the bar for Leona this year is a difficult task. After breaking the all-time rookie points record with 4.5 from a possible five in her Solheim Cup debut in 2021, that she’ll be a cornerstone of Europe’s defence at Finca Cortesín in Spain this September is a guarantee, and given the consistency she’s displayed since graduating to the LPGA Tour, she’s sure to start every tournament among the shortlist of favourites.

Eight top-10s in 18 2022 LPGA starts, including a win and two runner-ups, saw the Cavan native rise to 11th in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings by the year’s end, posting a career best T4 in a major championship along the way.

That Leona will be targeting another LPGA win or two this season is a given, and at the very least, she’ll be hoping to be in the mix on Sunday at the major championships. Could she win a major in 2023? Absolutely, but for the reasons listed above, it’s still strong odds against.

Despite working hard to increase her length off the tee, Leona still gives up yards to most of the game’s other big guns, which makes her regular presence on leaderboards even more impressive. The drawback, of course, is that should some of the longer hitters’ have a great week on the greens, she has to do something extra special to tip the scales her way.

I think a more accurate barometer of how Maguire’s season pans out will be whether she is able to crack into the world’s top-5. If she manages that, then she’s put another fantastic season together.

3. Will Shane Lowry and Séamus Power automatically qualify for the Ryder Cup?

Lowry has been one of Europe’s most consistent performers over the last few seasons, and after impressing at Whistling Straits, he is a sure captain’s pick at worst, providing his game doesn’t fall off a cliff in 2023.

With just six automatic qualifiers this year – three from the European points list and three from the World Points list – competition is sure to be extremely high. With McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland, Matt Fitzpatrick, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrell Hatton and Alex Noren among those hoping to avoid an anxious wait by the phone, both Lowry and Power will know that anything other than a stellar 2023 won’t get the job done.

Power, with his PGA Tour card secured through 2025, has a considerable weight removed from his shoulders and can focus on building on his recent success and adding more DP World Tour events to his schedule, targeting one of those automatic places or at the very least, proving to Luke Donald why he can’t be left out of the team for Rome.

That the two Irishmen have committed to the Hero Cup in Abu Dhabi next week – with Power making the long haul from Hawaii and Lowry forgoing the opportunity to play for $15 million in a limited field – is further proof that donning the blue and yellow of Team Europe this year is top of their list of priorities.

4. Will Tom McKibbin, Gary Hurley or John Murphy have breakout years on the DP World Tour?

Not since Paul Dunne’s 2017 British Masters triumph has anybody outside the Irish ‘big quintet’ claimed a full-field victory on the European circuit.

Jonathan Caldwell won the 2021 Scandanavian Mixed Event – an LET and Euro Tour co-sanctioned event – but has sadly since lost his playing privileges on the DP World Tour, leaving Q-School qualifiers Hurley and Murphy along with Challenge Tour graduate McKibbin as the only Irish players who’ll be teeing it up week-to-week.

Murphy has found the going tough, missing four consecutive cuts to start his DP World rookie season, but though time is on his side, is unlikely to feature again until February, following the Abu Dhabi Championship and Dubai Desert Classic.

The same schedule will apply to Hurley, though he’s had a better start to the season, making all three cuts, with a best finish of T13 at the Mauritius Open.

McKibbin seems the best bet for joining the winners’ circle. Not in the field for Abu Dhabi, but a possible for Dubai, the Holywood prodigy has just turned 20, has made four cuts in a row, made a hole-in-one enroute to a T15 finish at the South African Open, and followed that up with a T13 at the Alfred Dunhill a week later.

A birdie making machine, when McKibbin starts eradicating the costly errors, he’s going to be a regular presence on Sunday leaderboards.

5. Will Pádraig Harrington contend on the PGA or DP World Tours?

After a four-win maiden season on the Champions Tour, that included the Senior US Open, the future hall-of-famer declared that he fully believed that he had at least another win in him on one of the main tours.

Harrington feels that getting in regular contention on the Champions circuit has sharpened him mentally, and he’s signalled his intent to tee-it-up on the premier tours on a more regular basis.

His work ethic never in question, and hitting the ball further than he did in his prime, it’s unquestionable that Harrington has the tools to succeed should he find himself near the top of the leaderboard come Sunday.

Having allowed his own game to take a back seat during his Ryder Cup captaincy, he still battled his way through difficult conditions and course setup to a fourth-place finish at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in 2021, and his Senior US Open victory last year means he’s in the field for three of the four major championships in 2023.

Phil Mickelson showed that if you’ve got the nous, and your body still allows it, you can do the unthinkable. There are a lot of similarities between Pádraig and Phil – thankfully, a lot of differences too – but he’ll certainly be thinking that if Phil can do it, why can’t he?

Winning is still a huge ask, but contending? That’s a different matter. Who’d back against him?

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