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Monday, 03 July 2006

The first instalment in an eagerly-awaited “two-parter” at The K Club in County Kildare begins its opening act on Thursday when a star-studded cast tees up in the first round of the Smurfit Kappa European Open.

The Irish Ryder Cup trio of Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley will be hoping to play lead roles as they go in search of valuable Ryder Cup points, a share of the record £2.4 million (€3,472,752) prize fund, and the second home victory in the tournament’s history.

Standing in their way is a strong field that includes past champions and former US Open winners Michael Campbell of New Zealand and Retief Goosen of South Africa, as well as England’s John Bickerton and Paul Broadhurst, Argentine Angel Cabrera, Paul Casey of England, 2005 champion Kenneth Ferrie of England, Miguel Angel Jiménez of Spain, Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie, Ian Poulter of England, 2003 winner Phillip Price of Wales, Swede Henrik Stenson and England’s Lee Westwood, a two-time winner of this event.

This means that seven of the ten players currently occupying automatic spots in The 2006 European Ryder Cup Team will be in action at The K Club this week, where their performances will be closely monitored by European Captain Ian Woosnam. Bickerton, of course, became the latest player to move into Ryder Cup contention with his superb victory in the Open de France ALSTOM at the weekend.

Woosnam and his American counterpart Tom Lehman have both elected to play in the tournament and their attendance will provide an extra sub-plot to the drama that will unfold in the glorious surroundings of the Kildare venue, which in less than three months’ time will stage The 2006 Ryder Cup.

There was certainly no shortage of drama last year when Ferrie capitalised on the late collapses of Thomas Björn and Raphaël Jacquelin to capture the Smurfit Kappa European Open title by two strokes from Montgomerie and England’s Graeme Storm. It was a decisive moment in the 27 year old’s career and last month he enhanced his burgeoning reputation further with a magnificent display that saw him claim a share of sixth spot on his US Open debut.

Ferrie’s victory came over the Palmer Course - venue for The 2006 Ryder Cup – but this week the tournament switches to the Smurfit Course for only the second time in 12 years. On the previous occasion, in 2004, it was Goosen, the World Number Four, who emerged on top.

The South African had arrived at The K Club two weeks after winning his second US Open title at Shinnecock Hills and went on to produce another magnificent performance to win by five strokes from Australians Richard Green and Peter O’Malley and Westwood, winner in 1999 and 2000.

A year after Westwood’s double came Ireland’s only victory as Clarke closed with a final round 66 to finish three ahead of Björn, Harrington and Woosnam.

A strong home line-up will be hoping to replicate that moment come Sunday, giving their passionate fans something more to cheer during what promises to be an unforgettable few months for the whole of Ireland, and The K Club in particular.

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