Rory McIlroy the undisputed driving force behind Irish Open success
Published 01/06/2015 | 02:30
Rory McIlroy didn't even have to play well to be the most influential man at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
The 'Rory Factor' has made this year's event arguably the most successful in the tournament's history on and off the Royal County Down course.
McIlroy is not only the world's number one golfer, he is also - at the tender age of 26 - the most influential and pivotal figure in the game, attracting a high-calibre field and lucrative sponsorship to last week's event.
Without Rory, Ernie Els would not have chosen to miss his daughter's 16th birthday last week to make a return to the Irish Open for the first time in 17 years.
Without Rory, Rickie Fowler would not have dared leave the sun-baked courses of his native USA to make the trans-Atlantic trip to Northern Ireland, no matter how much he might profess to have enjoyed playing RCD in the 2007 Walker Cup.
Without Rory, the plethora of Major winners and high-ranking players would hardly have bothered to turn up for this tournament.
And if McIlroy had not been prepared to leverage a combination of his world status, his friendship with top players and his ability to return favours for those guys, it's arguable there would be no Dubai Duty Free sponsorship on the banner of the tournament.
Ernie Els summed up the Rory factor and how important he has been to attracting the star quality field.
"Rory and myself are good friends. He asked me quite a few months ago if I could get this one in my schedule and it was an easy yes, although I missed my daughter's birthday," said Els.
"Ever since he turned pro, he played some tournaments in South Africa. We run a foundation event down there and he played it for a couple of years. We run some foundation work in the US, and he plays it every single year.
"So when you have the world number one in your field, it's easy to ask people for money.
"He's been a great friend and he's been a huge benefactor. To come and play here was not a problem. Maybe next year might be a problem, but not this year."
Rickie Fowler also spoke of the personal touch by McIlroy as a key factor in his appearance.
"I was excited to get the invite from Rory when we knew the event was going to be something that was part of his work with his foundation," he said.
Two-time Major winner Martin Kaymer was another who cleared his calendar for last week in order to help out McIlroy.
"He asked if I had time to play. Obviously it's a very difficult one with our schedule, but hopefully if I play here, maybe one time he will come to Germany.
"If we can do favours to other players, helping the tour and helping the golf in their countries, why not?" said Kaymer.
Sponsors Dubai Duty Free came on board because of the Rory factor and the quality of the field, and have been pleased with the value to their brand from their association with the tournament.
The Northern Executive, via Tourism Northern Ireland, has projected a very positive image of the province and derived huge advertising and marketing from the television coverage beamed worldwide.
They are committed to a four year deal with the tour, incorporating the 2015 event, and the return to Northern Ireland at Lough Erne in 2017.
Timing has worked in favour of elevating the status of the Irish Open to a level which brought memories of its peak years in the 70s and 80s.
A combination of the tour's steadfastness with the Irish Open during the fallow years when it had no title sponsor, the Irish Major wins by Rory McIlroy (4), Padraig Harrington (3), and Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke (one each), and the Northern Executive's backing, augurs well for the future.
The only blot on the horizon was McIlroy's third missed cut in a row in the tournament.
He made a fantastic effort behind the scenes to promote the event and raise funds for his charity and the Daisy Lodge cancer centre at Newcastle, Co Down.
Will he reflect on that work and consider how much it cost him in terms of performance at his favourite course, in front of thousands of fans who yearned to see him in contention at Royal County Down?
Paul McGinley reminded the public that these world class players did Rory a favour and there is a friendly but definite payback expected.
"Rory will do something in return for them and give up the most valuable thing to him, which is his time," said McGinley.
Scheduling was another factor, in that he came to Down to play his fifth tournament in a row, and was always in danger of finding the battery had gone flat.
Immediately after his second round on Friday, McIlroy looked tired and dejected and just wanted to get out of town as quickly as he could.
His immediate concern is to rest and recuperate and begin preparations for the US Open at Chambers Bay from June 18-21.
Longer term, it will be interesting to see if he maintains a brand leader link with the Irish Open next year as it returns to the South, most likely to The K Club. There is much to ponder, but Graeme McDowell believes the foundations have been set for a bright future.
"Hopefully we can continue to build on this. The tournament always has the support of the Irish players and these people (fans) will come as long as we're here," he said.
"But if we can bring the greatest and best players in the world on top of that, we start to have a product that's very powerful, and that's what we're trying to do."
A return to the North in 2017 to Lough Erne will surely see McIlroy feature again in a headline role.
His genuine commitment to Northern Ireland has worked wonders regarding Royal County Down and his charity.
In saying that, it must be recognised that any and all the power that McIlroy commands by virtue of his talent and his standing in world golf, has been utilised for the best motives.
He could have restricted his involvement in this event to simply playing. Instead, he called in favours to attract as many top ranking players as possible, and got stuck in to fundraising for his charity.
McIlroy the golfer may have lost out, but McIlroy the humanitarian and a patriot, in the best sense of that word, was a winner.