Irish Open catches fire on Sunday afternoon

Bernie McGuire
Bernie McGuire

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A slow burning Irish Open caught fire on the back nine on Sunday, with Scotland’s Russell Knox edging Kiwi Ryan Fox in a nail-biting playoff.

54-hole leader Erik Van Rooyen failed to find the form that saw him set a new course record on Friday, and come within inches of equalling it on Saturday. Three bogeys in four holes saw Van Rooyen’s four-stroke lead vanish making the turn, and the South African’s level par back nine saw him finish two strokes short.

Playing two groups ahead of Knox, Spaniard Jorge Campillo eagled 17 and made a great par save on 18 to take the clubhouse lead at -13 – his second eagle in a round of 65 – but even at that stage, there was a sense that it may be one shot short.

In the group behind, fellow countryman Jon Rahm got off to a disastrous start with a triple-bogey seven on the second hole, falling to -3, 11 strokes off the lead, and seemingly out of the tournament. Playing aggressively, with only victory in mind, Rahm reeled off six birdies and an eagle in his next 15 holes to reach 18 two strokes behind Campillo. Needing eagle at the last to join Campillo, Rahm dropped to his knees as his approach from 75 yards caught the lip but failed to drop as the huge crowd camped around 18 threatened to go beserk. Rahm tapped in for his fourth consecutive birdie to close, and ultimately, a tie for fourth.

The gallery didn’t have long to wait as Russell Knox, knowing Ryan Fox had just birdied the 17th to reach -14 (Fox actually had about 12 feet for eagle), poured in a 25 footer for birdie to bring the crowd to their feet.

Knox – runner up to Rory McIlroy at the K-Club in 2016 – had an eagle and six bridies in a round of 66, with his closing birdie coming after a wayward tee shot and forcing Fox to birdie 18 to deny Knox a playoff at worst.

Fox, the first round leader, is among the biggest hitters in the game, and standing on the final tee-box with a one shot lead, there was never a doubt in his mind. Out came driver, and he thumped one 365 yards straight up the middle. As Fox waited over his ball, Knox’s putt on the green ahead changed things. Now, needing birdie for the win, Fox played a beautiful chip and run from about 65 yards to about 10 feet, but, seeking his first European Tour win, his putt slid agonizingly by.

And so to the playoff we went. Knox, hitting first, again pushed his drive, but his good fortune at avoiding the fairway bunker was somewhat offset by an awkward downhill lie some 160 yards out. For Fox, it was a case of déjà vu as he crushed another drive which rolled to a stop a yard behind the pitch mark he’d made 15 minutes previously.

And déjà vu would be the order of the day.

Knox, made light of the tricky lie to find the putting surface and leave a near carbon copy of the putt he holed on the 72ndhole. This time, Fox’s chip and run went about ten feet past, but it was very much his advantage.

Now in matchplay mode, feeding off the adrenalin of the crowd, and the memory of the putt before, Knox took aim, and moved to his left as the putt tracked towards the hole and found the centre to a silhouette of a jubilant Knox and the ecstatic galleries surrounding 18.

From having a ten-footer to win, to having a ten-footer to extend the playoff, the pressure was now firmly on Fox’s shoulders. Sensing a slight right to left break, Fox’s putt started just outside the hole and broke gently, catching a good portion of the hole before agonisingly horse-shoeing out.

And that was that. Victory was Knox’s.

Afterwards, Knox said of the winning putt, “I stood over it, and I was just like, don’t aim, just react. I mean, that’s why we play golf, to hole a putt like that on the last hole, it’s just the best feeling in the world.”

Following a second place finish at last week’s Open de France and victory in another Rolex series event this week, Knox is now firmly in the frame for selection for the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in September. “Ryder Cup wise, still a long way away. To make that team, you’ve got to be winning tournaments and that was a great start this week.”

In two professional starts in Ireland, Knox now has a first and a second place. To what does he attribute his form on Irish soil?
“Must be the Guinness, I guess.”

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