A Look Ahead to the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship

October 04, 2017

- Grant Whittington

With all of the major tournaments now completed, you could be forgiven for thinking that the golf season was all but over for the game’s elite players.

With a European Tour winner still to be determined and the Race for Dubai also heating up, however, there are still a number of important tournaments left to keep the sport’s leading lights engaged.

One of these is the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, which will tee-off at the Old Course, St. Andrews on 5th October. Despite emerging as one of the sport’s most prestigious and lucrative tournaments after its inception 17 years ago, it had seen its popularity decline in recent times before a superb championship in 2016 restored its reputation once again.

So what will this years’ installation bring, and who are likely to be the key contenders once the tournament starts?

A Brief History of the Tournament and its Unique Appeal

The tournament, which replaced the fading and increasingly redundant Dunhill Links Championship in 2001, has a genuinely unique format and offers potentially huge winnings to its participants. In fact, it is one of the richest golf tournaments on the European Tour, while it also links three famous UK courses during a four day period. Both individuals and teams will compete for prizes at the event, creating diverse gameplay and a genuinely immersive experience for fans.

At the heart of this tournament is the so-called ‘home of golf’ St. Andrews, which sits on the picturesque banks of the river Fife. The other two courses included in the rotation are the Carnoustie Golf Links and Kingsbarns Golf Links, and this creates an interesting challenge for players as they alternate across different venues.

While the tournament follows the tried and tested method of including four competitive rounds, the 54-hole cut is unique in that it will features the top 60 professionals and the leading 20 pro-am teams. These lucky participants will advance to the final round at St. Andrews, after which time one individual and the leading pro-am team will be declared as the winners of their respective events.

The event has seen a number of famous players take part during the last 17 years, with Ireland’s Padraig Harrington the most successful participant having won the singles and pro-am double in 2002 and 2006. No other player has achieved this feat, although Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els have both finished second in the event on two separate occasions. Germany’s Martin Kaymer, who was initially runner-up in the 2008 instalment of the event, also secured an impressive win by shooting -17 in 2010.

Although the event has gradually lost a little of its lustre during the last few years, the 2016 tournament delivered a much needed boost for the organisers. The event was superb and the quality of the gameplay exceeded all expectations, as England’s Tyrell Hatton delivered a stunning performance to record -23 and beat his countryman Ross Fisher by four strokes. In doing so, he equalled the lowest ever score at the event, matching the achievement of  David Howell back in 2013.

Fisher could count himself unlucky not to win after shooting an excellent -19, but he was beaten by Hatton’s final round 66 that afforded him a crucial advantage. Interestingly, the talented Hatton also equalled the St. Andrews Old Course record with a third round 62, with the overall win propelling him into the world’s top 35.

This brilliant advert for the tournament helped to launch it back into the mainstream and successfully recaptured the imagination of fans, while reviving memories of previous tournaments when celebrity amateurs such as Ian Botham, Nigel Mansell and Gary Lineker took to the course.

This Years’ Tournament: What Should we Expect?

Following on from the momentum established by the 2016 event, the tournament received a significant boost when Rory McIlroy announced that he would participate in this years’ installation. The involvement of the current world number three has certainly helped to reinforce the prestigious nature of the event, who stated that this tournament would be the only one he entered into between now and the end of the season (the Ulsterman plans to take a three month break after struggling to perform consistently in the major events so far this season).

The two-time runner-up, who last finished second at the Old Course back in 2014, will certainly fancy his chances of winning this time out, although he will face stiff competition from Danny Willett (who was part of the successful pro-am team last year with partner Jonathan Smart) and the defending champion Tyrell Hatton. A number of other elite level players are also expected to compete as part of a strong field this year, so McIlroy will have to work hard if he is to secure a much-needed tournament win.

Fans will also be intrigued to note the return of former regular and the 2010 U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell, who despite having slipped to 136 in the world rankings remains a big name within the sport. McDowell is also something of a cult figure among St. Andrews fans, following his thrilling, sudden-death play-off defeat to Stephen Gallacher back in 2004. The man himself is keen to banish this memory and conclude some unfinished business at St. Andrews, even though he has since gone on to become a major champion.

Why a Determined McIlroy May be the Man to Beat

The tournament will also see a typically strong celebrity showing, with former Westlife star Bryan McFadden and Three Lions’ cricketer Kevin Pietersen scheduled to compete this year. The latter will be playing in his third tournament at the Old Course, while he will be looking to make the cut and reach the fourth round for the very first time.

From the perspective of the professionals, however, it is hard to see anyone beating McIlroy. The Ulsterman, whose three-month break will commence immediately after the tournament, is determined not to end 2017 winless and will be looking to seek some solace in year when he has dramatically underperformed in the majors.

This would provide McIlroy with a huge confidence boost ahead of the new season, and enable him to refresh himself after a difficult and grueling year.

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