Code-cracking European Tour moves through the gears: Leading contenders at the Irish Open

The big stars are at Mount Juliet this week as preparations heat up for next month’s Open at Royal St. George’s.

Best bet

Tommy Fleetwood each way at 15/1

For many years the cunning skills of the eggheads who spent the Second World War cracking the Enigma code at Bletchley Park were not just a mystery to the rest of us - their vital contribution to the war effort was entirely under wraps.

As the decades passed, and with them official secret embargoes, the tireless riddle-solving, puzzle-breaking, brainbox-brilliance of Alan Turing and his colleagues have spawned a remarkable range of documentaries, books, films and podcasts.

When you consider the difficulties of maintaining a European Tour schedule while trying to comply with a myriad number of Covid restrictions, sponsorship problems, travel dilemmas, and who knows what other complications, you half wonder if, in about 50 years time, the equivalents of Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley will be starring in a movie about how Keith Pelley and the staff at Wentworth cracked an enigmatic headache of their own.

Mini swings, normal swings, UK swings; back-to-back tournaments, date-shifting tournaments, squeezed tournaments; rearranged border crossings, charter flights, long drives; bubbles and protocols, systems and strategies - they've dealt with the lot.

What the circuit hasn't had since the Desert Swing, however, is big names teeing it up in big events which makes the next three weeks such a wonderful prospect.

It all kicks off with the Irish Open at Mount Juliet this week which stars Rory McIlroyShane Lowry and Tommy Fleetwood.

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The big names will increase in number at the Scottish Open, and then Major Championship golf returns to British and Irish shores at Royal St. George's in Kent.

Ahead of the start of the action in Ireland, let's take a closer look at the leading contenders.

Rory McIlroy

Playing on the island of Ireland has never been straightforward for Rory McIlroy and never was that more apparent than his last experience of it at the 2019 Open.

Expectation was high, on the track where he had set a course record as a teenager, and yet he lurched to a first round 79 before thrashing a brilliant 65 that came up just short of rescuing his weekend plans.

Before then, he had made 12 appearances in the Irish Open - a dozen efforts that have largely failed to do his talent any justice. Five times he's missed the cut and he's made the top 30 on just the three occasions. One of those was when T10th at Royal Portrush in 2012, but the other two offer hope for this week: tied seventh at Adare Manor in 2008 and victory at the K Club in 2016 - both of them big-scale, high-end parkland layouts like Mount Juliet.

His form is no less complex a riddle. He was terrible in spring, started working with Pete Cowen, won the Wells Fargo Championship, regressed, and then finished seventh at the US Open, struggling in the final round when poised to end his Major drought. The tree-lined, inland venue should suit, but his price is very short.

Shane Lowry

In a very general sense, Shane Lowry is the flip of McIlroy: he prefers golf by the coast. The obvious evidence of this is that he's won the Irish Open at County Louth, the Open at Royal Portrush, and is 7-for-7 at making the cut on Irish links venues.

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Meanwhile, he's just 3-for-6 on parkland, most recently missing the cut last autumn at Galgorm Castle. But don't get too carried away by that split. For one thing, he was fifth at Carton House in 2013, for another he's played lots of good golf at the likes of Woburn, Wentworth, Firestone and Valderrama.

His form is strong with top 10s at TPC Sawgrass, Harbour Town, Kiawah Island and Muirfield Village - the latter a Jack Nicklaus design, as this week's venue is. He made the weekend, but achieved little else, at Torrey Pines in the US Open last time out and his reaction to that will be key this week and also on defence of the Open.

He was frustrated by not contending because he knows he's in good form. Will he reset or will the irritation mount? Add in lots of attention in the next three weeks and it's easy to conclude that he faces a severe off-the-course, as much as on-the-course, test in July.

Tommy Fleetwood

It's been a bit of a hard slog in 2021 for the affable Englishman who got himself into contention three times in the early weeks of the year and landed a couple of top 10s, but since then has struggled to impose himself.

Fleetwood was second behind Lowry at Royal Portrush
Fleetwood was second behind Lowry at Royal Portrush

He was T14th at the Wells Fargo Championship in May, but that's his only strokeplay top 30 since the first week of March and T46th is his best Major Championship effort for the year.

His price reflects his quality and long term results on the European Tour rather than the current state of his game. However, that's fair enough: his last 15 starts on the European Tour (not counting US Majors or the WGC) have reaped a win, another five top three finishes and only one failure to be in the top eight at some point during the week.

Christiaan Bezuidenhout

The South African made his breakthrough on the European Tour in July 2019 and two years on he will be looking forward to three weeks in Britain and Ireland having also established himself on the world scene.

Since heading over to the PGA Tour in February, he hasn't missed a cut and has threatened to do a lot more even though he has just one finish better than T30th (when tied seventh at Bay Hill): he was in the top 12 at some point in the week at Augusta National, Harbour Town, Kiawah Island, Muirfield Village and Torrey Pines.

He's another whose recent raw European Tour results are excellent: three wins, one second and two thirds in his last 27 starts in fact.

Martin Kaymer

After a fast-finishing second in last week's BMW International Open the popular German said: "Last week's third round at the US Open gave me a lot of confidence. I don't know what happened during that round, but something felt right. I thought, I'm swinging it really consistent now."

It is now seven years since he last tasted victory, at the 2014 US Open, and in the meantime he has recorded 19 top five finishes, five of them second-placed efforts.

It's an agonising run and he'll be looking to feed off some decent memories of this tournament. He's played it five times, finishing tied tenth at Adare Manor, tied fifth at the K Club and tied ninth two years ago at Lahinch.

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