June 17 (Reuters) - Defending champion Paul Casey spoke with relish on Tuesday of the drama that lies ahead at this week's Irish Open at Fota Island Resort, where three qualifying places for next month's British Open will be up for grabs.
Englishman Casey, who won last year's 72-hole event by three strokes, said the combination of the Irish fans' enthusiasm and a chance to secure places at the British Open, to be played at Royal Liverpool, Hoylake, ensured great excitement.
"I think it's wonderful that players will have the opportunity to qualify at the Irish Open," said Casey. "I have always loved playing in Ireland - and the support from the Irish fans when I won last year was phenomenal.
"The fact that three places in The Open are on the line at this year's tournament will create even more excitement for the spectators and the players."
The Irish Open is part of a new Open Qualifying Series, and the top three finishers from a 156-strong international field, from 23 nations, earn places at Hoylake.
"The Open Championship is what we all aspire to as kids growing up," added Casey, who has already qualified. "As players, we know how much it would mean to win such an historic Championship.
"There are so many great names on the Claret jug and to follow them would be fantastic."
Twenty players have earned exemptions to the British Open, including former champions Darren Clarke (2011), Padraig Harrington (2007, 2008), Paul Lawrie (1999) and John Daly (1995) as well as past US Open winners Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. (Reporting by Tim Collings, editing by Neville Dalton)