The Irish Open is one of the marquee events on the European Tour schedule, and the 2013 version boasts plenty of star power and storylines that should make it another phenomenal tournament.
Past British Open champion and recent Ryder Cup member Paul Lawrie regards it as one of his favorite stops on the schedule:
All checked in for flight to Dublin for this weeks @irishopen13 one of my favourite events of the year great crowds and atmosphere— Paul lawrie (@PaulLawriegolf) June 25, 2013
Headlining the field is world No. 2 Rory McIlroy, who surprisingly still has not won this season anywhere in the world on either major tour.
McIlroy registered a top-10 finish here in 2012 when Jamie Donaldson won his maiden tournament on Europe's top circuit at Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush. Ironically, that was the same venue at which a 16-year-old McIlroy crushed the course record in firing an 11-under 61.
To his credit, Donaldson has backed up his breakthrough with a win back in January at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. That was the same tournament the likes of McIlroy and Tiger Woods struggled in blustery conditions and missed the 36-hole cut.
This Irish Open course is designed by prolific player Colin Montgomerie, who will not participate this week. Rather, having just turned 50 on Sunday, he will take part in the Senior Players Championship on the Champions Tour, per The Daily Mail's Derek Lawrenson.
Let's take a look at when and where to catch the action beginning on Thursday, along with the top groups to watch for the first two days and how they might fare in Maynooth.
When: Thursday, June 27, to Sunday, June 30
Where: Carton House Golf Club in Maynooth, Co. Kildaire, Republic of Ireland
Tee Times: First group is off at 2 a.m. ET; 7 a.m. local time on Thursday. For a complete list of tee times for the first two rounds, visit EuropeanTour.com.
Purse: €2.0 million
Thursday: Golf Channel 9-12:30 p.m. ET
Friday: Golf Channel 9-12:30 p.m. ET
Saturday: Golf Channel 8-12 p.m. ET
Sunday: Golf Channel 8:30-12:30 p.m. ET
For more information, visit the tournament's official website.
Groups to Watch (Round 1 tee time listed)
No. 10 tee, 2:50 a.m. ET: Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Thomas Bjorn
The plethora of bunkers and tight fairways will make this a demanding test of golf, but these are three outstanding ball-strikers who should all have great chances to win.
This tournament obviously holds significance to both McIlroy and Lowry as Irish natives, but Bjorn won this event the last time it was held at this venue.
Lowry plays the Montgomerie Course regularly when he isn't traveling, and as the previous highlight package showcased, he won the event in 2009 as an amateur over Robert Rock in a playoff.
Earlier in the year at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, the 64th and last-seeded Lowry beat his longtime friend McIlroy in a stunning loss that turned out to be a sign of things to come for the two-time major champion's current campaign.
Last week at the BMW International Open, Bjorn nearly won, but a double bogey at No. 14 and a birdie at the last by champion Ernie Els left the Dane one stroke short in the end.
However, it was Bjorn's second runner-up finish in as many starts, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him continue his hot form at this event.
No. 1 tee, 7:50 a.m. ET: Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Jamie Donaldson
Which superstar has the best chance of winning the Irish Open?
Donaldson is definitely a late bloomer, as it took him well into his 30s to capture his maiden victory on the European Tour. However, the Welshman has proven himself among the world's elite, and will begin his title defense alongside two prior major champions.
As great as Harrington is at grinding and getting the most out of his rounds, he may not be able to recover from last week's Sunday implosion at the PGA Tour's Travelers Championship.
Harrington posted a nightmarish 10-over 80 in the final round after entering the day well within reach of finding the winner's circle. Irish Golf Desk's Brian Keogh documented the extent of the damage:
That's a (+10) 80 for Pádraig Harrington. Equals second worst score of his 18-year pro career in relation to par. [6 f'wys, 9 GIR, 34 putts]— Brian Keogh (@IrishGolfDesk) June 23, 2013
As for McDowell, his 2013 season has been rather up and down. He's missed five cuts worldwide, yet he also boasts four top-five finishes—including wins at the PGA Tour's RBC Heritage and the Volvo World Match Play Championship.
Since the aforementioned win in Abu Dhabi, Donaldson hasn't cracked the top 10 anywhere. Thus, it's very difficult to project how well these men will play, but they should attract some of the largest galleries in the opening two rounds.
No. 1 tee, 8:00 a.m. ET: Darren Clarke, Francesco Molinari and Ross Fisher
Long considered deserving of a major title, Clarke finally broke through in the British Open in 2011 at the age of 42 after not having finished in the top 10 of any major in the past decade.
Since then, it hasn't been a particularly solid display from the Northern Irishman, but he will be a fan favorite and well-followed this week, which should help him at least somewhat.
Clarke believes his game is in good shape at the moment, though, according to Northwestern University Director of Golf Patrick Goss:
Darren Clarke on his poor play, "The numbers on Trackman are great..." Goal is to score better. Score is the only number that matters— Patrick Goss (@patgossnugolf) June 24, 2013
The last time Fisher won was at this tournament in 2010, where he matched the event's aggregate scoring record at Killarney—previously set by Montgomerie.
Unfortunately, it's been a bit of a slump for Fisher as well since then. It's been over a year since the Italian Molinari last tasted victory, too.
It will be interesting to see how all three of these players bounce back and if the increased stakes of this tournament will help elevate their games to a higher level.