By Neil Leverett and Peter Moore

  • Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland hosts the final major of the 2019 golf season
  • Open Championship rotation returns to County Antrim for only the second time
  • Local boy Rory McIlroy amongst favourites, as Holywood native looks to end five-year major drought
ROYAL PORTRUSH, NORTHERN IRELAND – Who will claim the final golfing major of 2019, as Royal Portrush hosts the Open Championship for the first time since 1951?

 

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Open returns to Northern Ireland

As the creme de la creme of the golfing fraternity assemble once again this season, for the final time in 2019 the world’s best will vie for the final major of the year, as Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland hosts the 148th Open Championship beginning on Thursday.

Traditionally the third major of the season, this year for the first time however, sees the Open in its’ rightful place as the final stop on the journey for one of the sport’s big four prizes.

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With the US Open having been claimed by 50/1 outsider Gary Woodland at Pebble Beach, Brooks Koepka having retained the US PGA Championship at Bethpage Black and after Tiger Woods had made his glorious return to the top of the game at the Masters, Portrush sees the chance for a fourth separate name to take home a major title in 2019? Or will one of those three men repeat on the Northern Irish links?

 

Tough Portrush test

Staging just its’ second Open tournament since its’ inaugural bow 68 years ago – now both occasions in the Open’s illustrious history where it will be take place outside of both Scotland and England. The last time the Country Antrim course hosted was way back in 1951, when the late Max Faulkner of England lifted the famous Claret Jug. The Englishman eventually holding on to win by two shots with a three-under par total.

This week will see two new holes designed by Martin Ebert, the seventh and eighth. There are also other changes to various holes, including a new green on the par five second and all the holes following the eighth have moved their position in the round. The infamous par three Calamity which used to be the 14th, is now the 16th on the back nine.

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Whilst the early parts of this week have seen dry, sunny conditions for the fairways and greens of Portrush, Wednesday brought with it a change and the four days proper are expected to present some of the toughest conditions, with wind and rain forecast across the weekend.

The par-71, 7.344-yard surroundings on the coast on Northern Ireland are set to be a stern for the 156-strong field competing, with a purse of just under $2m at stake.

Carnoustie’s baked environs may have proved to be one of the tamest Open’s in recent memory 12 months ago, but with playing conditions this time around set to test the very best, Portrush is ready to show its’ teeth on its’ return to major tournament competition.

 

McIlroy homecoming

For one man in particular, this weekend will feel extremely special. Northern Ireland’s hometown favourite Rory McIlroy grew up playing the same course as a youngster 14 years ago, at the tender age of 16.

A native of Holywood – just 62 miles from Portrush – McIlroy also has a fine record in Open Championship having finished in the top five in each of the last three tournaments.

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The 30-year-old however, arrives at Portrush after a disappointing Scottish Open last weekend, which saw McIlroy finish tied for 34th place, together in the knowledge the 30-year-old has not won a major since Valhalla’s US PGA in 2014.

McIlroy is considered a strong favourite to lift his second Claret Jug this weekend, but having been in a similar position for all of the year’s three prior majors, can the Northern Irishman finally use his links prowess and course experience, to end his major drought?

 

Usual suspects

Such is the ilk of the top 50 players in the world, the contenders to become the Champion Golfer of the Year are many. The usual suspects will again be there or thereabouts, with World Number One Koepka having finished either first or second in no less than five of the last six major championships.

The Floridian is looking to win his fourth major in the last ten, but has struggled in the Open since his rise to the top of the golfing ladder, with a highest place finish of sixth. He will however, have the insider info of caddie Ricky Elliott – born and bred in Portrush.

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Jon Rahm arrives in good heart after recently winning the Irish Open for a second time in three years at Lahinch, the County Clare course has more than hint of the familiar this week’s a course, but the Spaniard will need to turn a poor links track record around to be there on Sunday.

American Jordan Spieth will be looking for a return to winning ways since two years when the now 25-year-old won his first Open title at Royal Birkdale. The Texan was tied for lead going into last year’s final round also, before shooting 76.

US Masters champion Woods hasn’t played since finishing low down the field at the US Open more than a month ago in his native California, but having risen to glory once again this year after 12 years, the Woods’ roar cannot be ruled out.

Then of course there is the defending champion Francesco Molinari who has proved to have the perfect all-round game for the trials of links golf, with the Italian looking to become first man since Padraig Harrington in 2008 to win back-to-back Open crowns.

 

Strong home support

As arguably the most knowledgeable galleries across the globe the fans will pack the course for the four days, in the hope of seeing a first British winner in five years.

Aside from McIlroy, Graeme McDowell will be a popular figure at Portrush as the hometown boy. The former US Open winner who grew up playing at Rathmore Golf Club, will be looking to take advantage of the huge swathes of followers he is likely to garner, and may be one to watch come the weekend.

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Though Darren Clarke is unlikely to challenge for his second Claret Jug – and his second major – the County Tyrone resident and winner at Royal St. Georges in 2011 has always been a big favourite of British crowds, and will again be a big draw.

There will be plenty of support for Englishman Justin Rose, who finished an agonising second place last year to eclipse his best finish since his debut fourth as an amateur back in 1968. Rose has been a prominent figure in all three majors thus far in 2019, before tailing off in the final 18 holes. He finished tied for third at Pebble Beach.

Elsewhere, among a host of strong home contenders, Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick could make his way into the reckoning come the final round, finding himself in a rich vein of form for over a month now. Having already claimed five European Tour events, the Yorkshireman is a capable links performer and will warrant solid support.

As will Paul Casey, who is yet to win a major in a career now approaching its’ third decade. As another of the sport’s nearly men, can the 41-year-old Cheltenham man finally enter golf’s hall of honours?

 

Many a dark horse

To win an Open, experience has proved vital in the past years. Molinari was the ninth player over the age of 35 and above to win the Open in the last 12 years. Henrik Stenson turned 40 just three months before he won in 2016 and the 2015 winner Zach Johnson was also over the age of 40 when he won the event. This weekend’s winner could come from that vital element, however there are more than handful of names that could land the big prize on Sunday evening.

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Xander Schauffele, has consistently been on leader boards since joining the PGA Tour at the start of the 2016-17 season. He has finished in the top 10 in half of his 10 career major starts, including three top-three finishes in his past five, including a runners up spot at last year’s British Open and a tie for third place at this year’s US Open.

Woodland, having broken his major duck will fancy his chances on similar fairways to Pebble Beach, whilst Rafa Cabrera-Bello could also become a front-runner, with four top-10 finishes this year including each of his last three tournaments. Additionally, the 35-year-old Spaniard finished T2 at the 2012 Irish Open, which was held at Royal Portrush. Cabrera-Bello’s prior record here could prove vital.

 

The 148th Open Championship begins on Thursday at Royal Portrush, Country Antrim, with opening tee-times at 6.35am UK time.

 

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