Don’t call it a comeback! Boots are on the ground here at Portstewart Golf Club for the 2017 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, and this place is rockin’ before the tournament has even started. The Irish Times had a fantastic article this week lowlighting some of the struggles this tournament has experienced in the last decade, and the details are eye opening.

In 2011, the tournament – alive, but by no means beating with the same vigour as the previous year – returned to Killarney and although the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks still dominated the landscape and the lakes continued to glisten, a sparkle had been removed. The field was poorer, and the prize fund had been halved from €3 million to €1.5 million. When Simon Dyson picked up his winner’s cheque, it was for €250,000.

For a country that boasts such an exceptional golf reputation, on an island that breeds some of the best players in the world on some of the best golf courses, it made no sense for it’s national open to fall into a state of disrepute.

But when the tournament went to Royal Portrush (just 10 minutes down the road from this week’s site) in 2012, it became the first ever European Tour event to sellout (again courtesy of the previously linked Irish Times article) as the Portrush area flexed its muscles to the R&A to show show off their ability to handle the Open Championship. They were ultimately granted a spot in the rota for the 2019 Open, as the championship returns to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

But still three years later at Royal County Down, the tournament purse was EUR 2.5 million. This was the first year that the Rory Foundation hosted, and the first year with Dubai Duty Free signed on. Now with the event fully entrenched in the Rolex Series, the event returns to the northern coast with a fat stack of EUR 6.3 million. The new July spot on the calendar has brought in some heavyweights, including Justin Rose, Jon Rahm, Thomas Pieters, and Hideki Matsuyama.

But on this Wednesday, the fans are out in droves to see the host and the defending champ. The opening hole at Portstewart is one of the best opening tee shots in the world. With the North Atlantic Ocean to your right, the players tee off down a significant slope to a fairway bending right around some treacherous gorse. The grandstands are completely full, and those that didn’t get a seat in time are lined up 5-6 rows deep left of the tee as Rory makes his way up. It’s a Wednesday! As someone who has never been to an Irish Open, there’s not even a hint that this tournament was once on life support. This tournament feels big, and there’s a buzz in the air.

With the event moving from May to July, and lining up directly with the Scottish Open and Open Championships that follow, players are forced to make some tough scheduling calls. If you’re willing to play three straight weeks, you can’t ask for a much better stretch than this one. With a late commitment to the Scottish Open, Rory is one of the few that will play all three events in a row. But the “problem” that comes with having so many good golf tournaments in different parts of the world is that you can’t play ’em all.

Traditionally, some top American players do come across the pond a week before the Open Championship to climatize themselves by playing in the Scottish Open. However, it’s a bit unrealistic to expect that players would come over and play all three events in a row. Royal County Down attracted both Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed to come over and play the event in 2015, but that was when it was held in May. Understandably, the only Americans in the field this year are ones that play the European Tour full time.

Having played the course this April, I can confirm what was already known by many, that this place is well equipped to handle a tournament of this magnitude. Many links courses (looking at you, Old Course), are not designed for spectator viewing, but the dunes that frame many of the holes here will be packed full of patrons all week. As always with links golf, the conditions will dictate the scoring, and while the weather appears mild for this week as of Wednesday, this is always subject to change. Those that follow this website fully understand my obsession with links golf, and it just feels appropriate for this tournament to be played on a links course.

As for the logistics, not everyone in Ireland is thrilled with the location:

As for the event in general, staging the only event in Ireland this year as far north as Portstewart is ridiculous.

— Golf Betting Brain (@GolfBetting12) July 3, 2017

It's at least a three hour drive away for over 70% of the population which makes it impossible for some to make it a day trip.

— Golf Betting Brain (@GolfBetting12) July 3, 2017

And if you want to stay overnight within an hour of the course you have to pay extortionate prices for sub-par accommodation.

— Golf Betting Brain (@GolfBetting12) July 3, 2017

While these criticisms are fair, I tend to like the idea of seemingly alternating years between bringing the event up to the north, then back down to the south. It’s a great exhibition for the area, the stunning coastal scenery, and the world class golf courses nearby (previously mentioned Royal Portrush, Castlerock, and if you’re willing to make the two hour drive, obviously Royal County Down). Additionally, it’s a good chance for players to check out Royal Portrush in advance of the Open.

Various Other Nuggets

  • I enjoyed Ben Coley’s preview of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. A lot of time and effort goes into posts of this size and magnitude and with this level of analysis. If you’re planning on wagering on the event, you’ll want to read this.
  • Pep Guardiola was paired with Rory at the Pro-Am, and he was out there grinding. Multiple practice swings, and plenty of backswing rips in between shots while his playing partners played. Usually this it the worst kind of amateur to get paired with, but he’s got a solid game, so he gets away with it.
  • I was sad to report to Tron that J.P. McManus’ game lacks pop. #NeverMeetYourHeroes
  • I’ve never seen players stacked on top of each other so closely like they were in the range here. It was pros mixed in with the ams, and it legitimately did not feel safe. I was getting stressed out watching from a distance.
  • I did notice a guy in a hoodie and what would best be described as a skateboard hat out there getting some solid work in. When his caddie moved, I first laid eyes on the Trackman, and got visibly excited. YES! Please let this be an amateur out here getting some Trackman reps in on the range before a pro-am! My disappointment could not have been more evident as he turned to reveal himself as Danny Willett.