Irish Open: Paul McGinley will be at the helm with Rory McIlroy sitting out

Paul McGinley
Paul McGinley will be pulling the strings at this week's Irish Open

The countdown is quickening in anticipation of only the second Open to be staged outside England or Scotland when the championship returns to Royal Portrush later this month.

While the Northern Irish town readies itself for the moment it becomes centre of the sporting world, that sense of gathering momentum is currently being felt at the opposite end of Ireland.

A commendably strong field has been assembled for this week's Irish Open, with nearly half of the victorious Ryder Cup team from Paris last autumn on show. Major champions Danny Willett, Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell are also playing.

Jon Rahm
Jon Rahm will be competing in the 2019 Irish Open, alongside names like Ian Poulter and Tommy Fleetwood

But while the likes of Jon Rahm, Ian Poulter and Tommy Fleetwood headline the field, the biggest player is the man pulling the strings in the background, the 2014 Ryder Cup skipper Paul McGinley.

The 52-year-old will not be hitting any shots at Lahinch this week, instead he is calling them. Indeed, he has been doing so ever since taking over the tournament's promotion role from the Rory McIlroy foundation.

In a recent episode of The Cut, the BBC golf podcast, McGinley outlined his vision for the tournament. He wanted to take it as far away from Portrush as possible, yet exploit a crucial link with the final men's major of the year.

It was his choice to use Lahinch, in the south west of Ireland, to generate a separate market from the one that will be saturated by the Open on the north coast of the island a fortnight later.

Equally, McGinley recognised that his event is the start of a three-week "links swing" which culminates in golf's oldest and most prestigious major. For that reason, he has been in close contact with the R&A throughout the build-up.

"The plan is to have fairway widths, green speeds and rough heights as close as possible to those at Portrush," McGinley told the podcast. He made sure this idea was known by the leading players he sought to lure to the field.

It is just one example of the detailed approach for which the 52-year-old has become so well known. This was at the heart of the way he captained Europe to such a commanding victory over Tom Watson's Americans at Gleneagles five years ago.

This week he has ensured the Irish Open takes over the entire town of Lahinch, not just its Alister MacKenzie designed golf course. This means the traditional "tented village" stretches beyond the bounds of the course and into the community.

McGinley brings a refreshing vision and it will manifest itself in Ireland this week. It is little wonder that his influence continues to grow despite having moved into the realms of seniors golf as a player.

Already a key board member for the European Tour, last month he was announced as part of the new Ryder Cup committee.

He will sit alongside former Premier League boss Richard Scudamore and Ian Ritchie, who previously ran Wimbledon and the Rugby Football Union.

McGinley will undoubtedly have plenty to offer a body tasked with further cashing in on the match's enduring popularity.

But this week it is all about the Irish Open and for many in the field there will inevitably be half an eye on what is to come at Portrush later this month as well.

Having paid a flying visit to Northern Ireland last week, I can report the course is in magnificent shape. Members have been playing off mats since last November to protect the fairways and the grandstands are almost complete.

"The build-up has been extraordinary," Gary McNeill, Royal Portrush's head professional, told BBC Sport.

"There is such a buzz around, not just Portrush but all around Ireland at the moment."

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy will be controversially absent from the Irish Open as he looks to focus on Portrush

Of course, much of that enthusiasm will centre on Rory McIlroy when he arrives in search of his second Open title but the four-time major winner is missing from the Lahinch field this week.

His absence from his home tournament attracted plenty of criticism, but the 30-year-old believes he is giving himself his best chance of Portrush success by instead playing in Scotland next week.

On his home patch it is not a move that wins him any popularity contests, but he has a different prize in mind - one that takes the form of a Claret Jug.

I spent a bit of time at McIlroy's home club, Holywood, on the outskirts of Belfast last week and it is worth noting the massive contribution he recently made to that place.

McIlroy paid for a magnificent clubhouse extension that includes gym and indoor swing facilities. To my mind, it is a blueprint for how modern golf clubs should be and the development benefits all Holywood members.

The player does not always generate the best press and certainly McGinley was disappointed he is not in this week's field at Lahinch. But McIlroy still makes massive and telling contributions, and sometimes they sit quietly under the radar.

McGinley's influence is more overt this week, helping ensure golf in Ireland is firmly in the spotlight for much of the month of July.