Ulstermen Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy head into this week’s Irish Open knowing that home expectations will be firmly on their shoulders after so far enjoying successful years for different reasons.
McDowell tees up at Adare Manor Hotel & Golf Resort having won the inaugural Ballantine’s Championship in South Korea in March, while teenager McIlroy continues to progress after gaining his European Tour card in 2007 following a glittering amateur career that saw him reach World Number One.
Both players will be looking to emulate Irishman Padraig Harrington, who last year became the first home winner in 25 years to lift The Irish Open before going on to be crowned Open Champion at Carnoustie.
Hopes of a second consecutive home champion have been further elevated in recent weeks, with McDowell’s victory quickly followed by wins for Damien McGrane in the Volvo China Open; Darren Clarke in the BMW Asian Open; and Peter Lawrie in the Open de España.
McDowell believes the Irish contingent at Adare Manor is the strongest ever assembled to contest for the Championship and admits Harrington’s win last year has inspired his countrymen to follow suit.
He said: “Winning in front of your home fans, family, friends, it's very special. I can only imagine. I haven't won obviously on home soil. You know, I would certainly agree with Padraig; if I was to win this week, or win an Irish Open in the future, I would imagine it would feel very, very special, just having so many close friends and family there to watch, and winning one on Irish soil.
“It was great to see him do it last year, and hopefully he's broken it open for us. Certainly we've never had a field of Irish players assembled like we have this week with a chance to win. So let's hope for another Irish winner.
“It's always nice to come back to The Irish Open. It’s a great venue here at Adare Manor, and you know, I think everyone is pretty excited about it. This is the only European Tour event we have this year in Ireland, so let's hope people get up for it. I think there obviously are a lot of players on form, and I'm certainly pretty excited about the week.”
McDowell is aware that his win at the Ballantine’s Championship helped to spark the timely flurry of Irish success in the last two months in the build up to the Irish Open but he said the victory also was important from a personal point of view.
“Obviously Korea did a lot for my confidence,” he said. “And the amount of confidence you do get from winning a tournament is massive and there's no substitute for that.
“I've been working pretty hard on my game for a couple of years now, so it's nice to get a boost from some good results and certainly enjoyed my golf the last six, eight months. Things have been going well, and I'm happy with the way my swing is going, and certainly liking what the ball has been doing. I'm scoring well and I feel like I've been playing reasonably consistent and giving myself chances on the weekend as often as possible, and obviously to get one across the line was pretty important really.”
McIlroy, meanwhile, will be playing in his first Irish Open as a professional having joined the ranks on the eve of last year’s Quinn Insurance British Masters.
While his countrymen have been busy lifting the silverware in Korea, China and Spain, the 19 year old from Holywood admits he has been adapting to the unfamiliar Far East courses on The European Tour but is confident heading into his national Open.
He said: “I played The Irish Open in 2005 as an amateur at Carton House Golf Club so I’m looking forward to it. I played this morning and the golf course here is really nice. The greens are rolling really well and it's a really nice golf course. I think they have set it up quite fairly, as well. I don't think the rough is as penal as it was last year so the scores should be a little better this year.
“I've tried to pace myself a bit this year, knowing this one was going to come up. I think I've played 11 events on the Tour Schedule this year, and I think I'll play probably the next eight out of ten so it's a busy run coming up.
“I think my progress has been okay,” he added. “It's been quite steady. It hasn't been anything too spectacular but I feel like I'm coming in feeling quite well and coming into a good run of events. Hopefully I can keep this going.
“My expectation for the year is to try to finish in the top 60 in the Order of Merit. This season is really only starting now with all of the big events coming up. I feel like I’ve progressed quite steadily over the last three or four months and hopefully I can go on from there and challenge in a couple of events.”