Get excited for the Irish Open to kick off Thursday morning at Royal County Down Golf Club, a brilliant test of golf with a spectacular layout and scenery — no wonder it’s one of the world’s greatest courses. Not enough is said about the venue, which has that “it” factor and special atmosphere that only the best major championship sites possess. In other words, RCD, which is located about an hour from Belfast in Northern Ireland, feels like it could host an Open Championship and this event feels notably distinct.
World no. 1 Rory McIlroy is playing host this week, with proceeds from the tournament benefiting his foundation, and he’s assembled a world-class field that includes the likes of Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer and Ernie Els, along with fellow Irish major champions Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington.
“It’s no coincidence that Royal County Down is so far up on the list of golf courses in the world,” said Clarke. “This is a proper golf course. You have to put the ball in the air to get it up over the hills, but you also have to be able to play the ball along the ground.
“You see the young kids bombing it and hitting it a long way, but this golf course requires a little bit more guile.”
Clarke, who is playing in his 24th Irish Open, believes this week has the strongest field that he’s ever played against at this event.
“To be able to do what he’s doing off the golf course is a great credit to him,” said Clarke. “There are a huge amount of world ranking points available this week because of the strength of the field and I think that is a reflection of how high Rory is held by his peers.
“It’s going to be a fantastic week of golf and the winner is going to have to play some seriously good golf come Sunday.”
Added McIlroy, who missed the cut at the BMW PGA Championship last week (which may have been a blessing in disguise): “It’s great that we have assembled such a great field on a world class golf course. With everyone here, there’s a lot of buzz, there’s a lot of talk about the tournament and at the same time, we are going to help a lot of people because of this tournament, as well.
McIlroy is busy with his hosting and entertaining duties, but he feels rested and prepared to contend at a course where he has fond memories.
“I do feel refreshed. I didn’t get out of bed until one o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday. I came here on Sunday and played a quiet 18 holes, then I came back on Monday morning and played.
“I feel very prepared. That was my third practice round. I haven’t played three practice rounds for a tournament since the Masters. I really just want to do well this week and it’s given me a bit of extra time which I think I can use.”
He is competing for much more than simply himself this week — rather it’s about those he’ll help with charity.
“We are going to achieve a lot of good things this week,” said McIlroy. “Hopefully I can get all the people out there that followed me on the range something to cheer about with some good golf.
“What I want to get out of it this year is just to raise a lot of money for the Foundation and for the cancer fund. Ultimately if I play well, and if I do well in the tournament, then all the money that I earn is going to go towards that, as well.
“So I’m not really playing for myself this week. I’m playing for a lot of other people and it gives me an incentive to go out there and enjoy it and try to play well.”
Tickets have sold out and 80,000 people are expected to show up for the show between Thursday and Sunday.
Other notable player quotes:
“My first victory on The European Tour was here – my first victory as a professional. I’m excited about this week. Obviously it’s a big tournament, there are a lot of great players in the field and it’s a great course. Add the fact that Rory’s Foundation is hosting the event and you have an exciting week ahead.
“Rory asked me as a favour, from a friend to a friend, to play this week and it’s for a great cause. It was a fairly easy decision to come here and obviously I’ve been looking forward to having an excuse to come back to the Irish Open, so I guess that was a good one.
“I think it’s great to put your name into a European Tour event. I was able to do it for years in Castellón in Spain and it was very, very exciting. It’s a lot of work but at the same time, you get a lot of things back, from the feel of the people and the joy of the week.”
“I’m definitely excited about the week, excited to get the invite from Rory, when we knew the event was going to be something he was going to be a part of with his Foundation.
“So I had been looking forward to getting over here and Royal County Down is one of my favourites – it always has been since we played the Walker Cup here in 2007. I have some great memories from that.
“I really enjoyed getting to see the golf course again the past few days, I got to see good weather and then a little bit of rain and wind today. We’ll see what the rest of the week has to hold for us and I’m just ready to get things going.
“I’m coming off a great win and this is my first start back. It’s a different style of golf over here but links golf is my favourite. I really enjoy getting to hit the different shots and thinking my way around the golf course. The game feels good, I’m excited to get back at it and want to get myself back in contention.”
“It’s great to be back here. Obviously Portrush a few years ago put Northern Ireland golf on the map from the point of view of what we are capable of.
“It led to The Open Championship coming back to Portrush and I really believe that County Down can be a runner for an Open Championship. I’m a little biased towards Portrush, of course, but there’s something about this golf course that I love.
“I love the elevation changes and the bunkering. This will be a really, really great showcase I think for golf and Ireland in general.
“Everything Rory has done to promote the tournament has been great. He has brought Dubai Duty Free into the fold and put together the kind of field that has really helped elevate this tournament back to one of the premiere events on The European Tour, so big thanks to him and his team and it should be a fun weekend.”
“It’s good to come back to Royal County Down. This is about as good as it gets to play The Irish Open. Many, many years ago, I played at Killarney and I had an invite. I didn’t have a European Tour card, so they gave me an invite and I played there.
“So I’ve got to thank the Irish Open for doing that for me. I didn’t make too much money at that event but it did help me get a Tour card. In any case, yeah, it’s good to be back and I’m looking forward to this week.
“Rory and myself, we are good friends. He asked me quite a few months ago if I could get this one in my schedule, and it was an easy yes, although I missed my daughter’s birthday yesterday. But it was an easy yes, just because of the fact that he’s help with our charity work so much.
“Ever since he turned pro, he played some tournaments in South Africa, and we run a Foundation event down there and he played it for a couple of years.
“We run some Foundation work in the US and he plays it every single year. So when you have the World No. 1 in your field, it’s easy to ask people for money, you know. To come and play here was not a problem.”
I saved the best for last. In case you missed it on Tuesday, I walked Royal County Down with Robert Rock and some other players. Big shout-out to Rock for participating and engaging fans with his insightful tidbits on everything from course strategy to swing tips. When I ran into him on the range earlier that day, I started using Periscope and then he actually offered to take me around the course in the afternoon to do more of the same. I was almost startled because I just can’t imagine that happening on the PGA Tour! — as in players are less keen to open up their world at the office. This isn’t a dig, rather it’s more of a compliment to not just Rob, but also the other European Tour players who were also so cooperative and accommodating.
Anyway, unfortunately, the Periscopes were posted more than 24 hours ago, so you can’t see them anymore on the app. I saved most of them to my phone and uploaded them on YouTube. However, my phone died at a very inopportune time — right when I ended the broadcast of the short yet very challenging par-3 7th, which was probably the most intriguing hole at Royal County Down (though there are quite a few of them, so it’s a tough call, but it’s nearly impossible to get the ball close there or to even stay on the green).
Here are the videos that I was able to post on YouTube. Enjoy, and thanks again to Rob. Let’s kick it off with the first hole.
Next, the par-4 no. 2:
The third hole:
Then, the fourth and the fifth:
I actually started on the back nine, with the 11th:
Then, the par-4 13th:
Finally, no. 14:
Looking forward to the telecast yet? Don’t forget to DVR it!