Irish Open flying flag as Europe fights for survival
SHANE LOWRY deserves credit for stoutly acknowledging the responsibility of Ireland's elite golfers to put on a show which will lure fans in their tens of thousands to Carton House for this week's Irish Open.
The future of the event hardly could be in better hands – Ireland is so well endowed right now with multiple Major champions and tournament winners, ranging from world No 2 Rory McIlroy to Lowry, Carton's own representative on Tour.
Yet much more is at stake on the Montgomerie Course this week than the future of our own national championship: the credibility of the European Tour itself rests on the 100,000 spectators officials expect to pour through the gates by Sunday's climax.
These are critical times for the professional game in Europe as recession bites deep into the Tour's heartland.
Over the past six years, sponsors and tournaments have vanished at an alarming rate. The balance of prize money and power on the Tour's international schedule has shifted so strongly to events in other regions (see table) that the title 'European' is almost a misnomer.
For example, it's staggering that England, a country with two million registered golfers, hosts just one tournament this year, last month's BMW PGA Championship.
Okay, the Welsh Open takes place just across the border in Celtic Manor and there are three events in Scotland, including next month's British Open at Muirfield, but it's a far cry from the heyday of 2006 when five English events counted among eight played in Britain that year.
And what about Spain, which two years ago boasted seven tournaments but now has just one, April's Open de Espana, which did not have a title sponsor.
The fact that 10 out of Jose Maria Olazabal's 12 miracle workers at last September's Ryder Cup and 16 of 19 Europeans in the world's elite top-50 are members of the PGA Tour, and play the bulk of their golf in the US, does little to help bread-and-butter events on this side of the pond to attract sponsorship.
In this regard, Ireland is lucky indeed to count on the continuing loyalty of world top-10 performers like McIlroy and Graeme McDowell to their national open, and also a creditable attribute of Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke in their Major-winning pomp.
Even if this year, so far, has been fruitless and frustrating for McIlroy, the chance of seeing this gifted young man let loose the golfing 'George Best' within over coming days should send attendances soaring. Those figures won't reach the stellar heights of last year's Irish Open at Royal Portrush.
That was as much a social as a sporting phenomenon as Ulster took advantage of a rare opportunity to give a rousing welcome home to their three Major champions, in the process shattering all European Tour crowd records.
Carton House is ideally placed just outside Dublin to draw on this island's greatest population centre and, unlike 2006 when the Ryder Cup and now defunct European Open took place less than seven miles away at The K Club, this year's Irish Open on the Monty is the only show in town.
Still, the European Tour is making every effort to market this event to the general sporting public.
For example, large screens in the extended tented village will show Saturday morning's second Lions Test, while there was a dual-ticket arrangement with the Curragh to embrace that evening's Irish Derby.
While advance ticket sales exceeded those for Killarney in 2010 and 2011 (and the deadline for online purchase has been extended to 5.0 today to accommodate late interest), there's no hint of complacency in Tour circles.
Despite this event's role in highlighting Irish golf tourism internationally (helping attract 163,000 money-spinning golf visitors annually), the Government no longer can guarantee automatic support for this or any sporting event in these recessionary times.
Michael Ring, Minister of State for Transport, Tourism and Sport, pays tribute to the Irish Open's role in helping build up this lucrative sector of the tourism market. Yet he adds that in the current economic climate "a question mark" inevitably hangs over every item on the national budget.
As European Tour chief executive George O'Grady says, the Irish Open is "sustainable as long as we keep the Government at no lower level (of investment) than where they are now" – namely, the €1.25m (€1.5m including vat) contributed through Failte Ireland.
Prior to the estimated €1m profit generated by last year's bumper attendances, the Tour subbed the Irish Open out of its own coffers for several lean years, but officials have long warned it's not in a position to do so anymore.
So it requires another bumper event this week to keep our national open alive, and this event's survival is as important to the Tour as it is to Irish golf.
As Thomas Bjorn, chairman of Europe's Tournament Players Committee and champion at Carton House in 2006, says: "It is nice to have the Irish Open.
"You can't lose these old national opens. If you start losing them, then you're in big trouble."