Hotshot Hatton will appreciate return to links layout
Kjeldsen may be overpriced
Live on Sky Sports 4, 10.30am Thursday
Tournament starts 7.30am
Champion's top tip
Tyrrell Hatton 35-1
Odds of 7-1 suggest that Rory McIlroy is the man they all have to beat in defence of his Irish Open title but the four-time Major champion has had a difficult season with injury troubles restricting him to just seven appearances in 2017. Of the others at the top of the market Tommy Fleetwood, in comparison, has had 14 starts, Jon Rahm has had 13 and Hideki Matsuyama 11.
McIlroy’s record in those seven outings is respectable. He has had five top-ten finishes and surged up the leaderboard at the Travelers Championship with a final-round 64. Yet he hasn’t really looked like a potential winner since losing a playoff at the South Africa Open.
His spectacular finish at the K Club, where he stuffed his second shot in close at the par-five 18th, glossed over an ordinary Irish Open record which reads MC-7-50-35-34-10-MC-MC-MC-1 and while he justified 4-1 quotes to win last year, there was no Matsuyama, Rahm or Justin Rose in the field, nor was there anyone who arrived in the same form as Fleetwood.
Matsuyama and Rahm have obvious claims but a lack of links experience could catch them out. Rose, meanwhile, finished second to Sergio Garcia at the Masters but has done little of note since and has been hindered by back problems.
Fleetwood makes the most appeal but following up a big win a week later is always a tough ask and the Southport native has his eyes firmly fixed on the Open, which will be held at nearby Royal Birkdale.
One man who will definitely appreciate a return to links golf is Englishman Tyrrell Hatton.
The 25-year-old took his form to a new level last season with a couple of eye-catching performances in Major championships, delivering a top-five finish at the Open and finishing tied-tenth at the USPGA soon after.
Hatton then broke his European Tour duck in October at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, where he won by four shots with the help of a blistering third-round 62. That could prove to be a key piece of form in the context of the Irish Open.
That comfortable victory was the culmination of a number of fine performances at links courses where Hatton typically thrives - in addition to that breakthrough Major showing at Troon last year, he has posted form figures of 4-22-2 at the Scottish Open.
The Bucks golfer has enjoyed a fruitful 2017 campaign, registering top-ten finishes in the Dubai Desert Classic, the Honda, the WGC event in Mexico and the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
His recent form is less appealing with missed cuts coming at the Masters, the US Open and mostly recent in the French Open on Friday, but he only just failed to make the weekend at Le Golf National and has spent the intervening days working on his swing in an attempt to regain confidence.
In addition to his links exploits, Hatton can take heart from an excellent Irish record. He finished tied-fourth on the links at Royal County Down in 2015 - just one shot off a playoff - before following up with another top-five the following year.
Soren Kjeldsen 80-1
Soren Kjeldsen won his fourth European Tour title when this event was staged at Royal County Down and the diminutive Dane will be eyeing another victory at Portstewart.
Kjeldsen held on in difficult conditions - he shot a final-round 76 - two years ago and showed guts to beat Eddie Pepperell and Bernd Wiesberger in a playoff after an extremely testing day.
He is an experienced links performer who has posted top-ten finishes in both the Open and Scottish Open in addition to his Irish triumph. Tricky conditions will not faze the 42-year-old and he could be in contention again on Sunday.
Renato Paratore 100-1
Joakim Lagergren 150-1
Italian youngster Renato Paratore claimed his first European title with a victory at the Norden Masters last month and the 20-year-old, who held off Chris Wood and Fitzpatrick in Sweden, is likely to be confident heading to Portstewart.
Paratore had shown glimpses of talent on the European Tour last season, making the cut in 11 of his last 12 events. His best finish came when seventh at the Dunhill Links but he has taken his form to another level this year and followed the Nordea victory by finishing in a tie for sixth at the BMW International Open.
A missed cut in the French Open was less than ideal but he responded well to an opening 77 by shooting 70 in the second round. He has the benefit of experience, after playing Portstewart in the 2014 Amateur Championship.
It’s also worth taking a chance on Sweden's Joakim Lagergren, who returned to form when in contention at the BMW a couple of weeks ago before a final-round 75 left him tied for 14th.
Lagergren has fond memories of Northern Ireland, where he won a Challenge Tour event in 2014. The 25-year-old is inconsistent and finished down the field in France last week but he has two top-five finishes to his name in the Dunhill Links and merits consideration at a big price.
Others to note
In contention again in France but snapped his driver after finding the water in the third round before a double-bogey at the first started a Sunday capitulation.
Well backed since producing a strong finish at Le Golf National, struggles with consistency and a short enough price now.
Home favourite won this event as an amateur in 2009 but has been solid rather than spectacular on the PGA Tour this year.
American ace continues to impress and produced another strong showing as he rattled home to finish second at Le Golf National.
Three-time Major champion has played sparingly this year but arrives in Northern Ireland following a 17th-placed finish at TPC River Highlands. Won this tournament en route to 2007 Open Championship victory.
2pts each-way 35-1 Betfair, Paddy Power
1pt each-way 80-1 Betfred
0.5pt each-way 100-1 Boyles
0.5pt each-way 150-1 BetBright
Course Strand Course, Portstewart Golf Club, Co Londonderry, Northern Ireland
Prize money €6.26m (€1.02m to the winner)
Length 7,118 yards Par 72 Field 156
Course record – 18 holes 66 Sean Towndrow (2014)
When to bet By 7.30am on Thursday
Where to watch Live on Sky Sports 4 from 10.30 am
Last week – French Open 1 T Fleetwood 22-1, 2 P Uihlein 80-1, 3 T Olesen 70-1, M Lorenzo-Vera 225-1, Alexander Bjork 150-1
Course overview A typical links layout, Portstewart’s Strand Course was selected to host the 2014 Amateur Championship alongside the more illustrious Royal Portrush, which is just a few miles up the road. The course measures just over 7,000 yards but there is trouble to be found in several areas. The opening hole is considered one of the most picturesque in Irish golf while the short par-four second hole is just out of reach for the longer hitters but anyone opting to get as close as possible to the green dare not go left, where the hole is flanked by a huge mound of rough. The four par fives are easily reachable in two shots, although the 13th is guarded by fairway bunkers. It’s a similar story at the par-three 15th which is surrounded by pot bunkers. Anyone coming up short or leaking right off the tee is faced with a desperately tough up-and-down.
Story of last year Rory McIlroy delighted his legions of supporters at the K Club as he pulled away from Bradley Dredge and Russell Knox to win by three shots. The tournament host put the result beyond doubt when he hit a wonderful second in close at the par-five 18th.
Weather forecast Rain is likely early on Thursday and should continue throughout the first two days of play. Things should brighten up on Saturday but Sunday could see more rain. Wind speeds should be fairly low for the opening two days but could strengthen over the weekend.
Type of player suited to the challenge Portstewart looks like a typical links layout and those who have performed well in similar conditions should fare well. Anyone who frequently misses fairways will have to negotiate tough rough so straight-hitting should be rewarded.
Key attribute Accuracy