McIlroy host role points way forward for Open
Published 02/06/2015 | 02:30
Ten years ago, the news that a 15-year-old kid had won a provincial golf championship in Ireland barely caused a ripple in the wide world of golf, but followers of amateur golf sat up and took note.
The West of Ireland championship had a proud history and generations of eventual Irish Tour professionals traditionally competed for the West and the other national amateur titles.
Rory McIlroy was another rising star of Irish golf to pitch up and play at County Sligo GC.
The difference was that, at 15, he became the youngest champion since the event began in 1923.
A few weeks later, he became the youngest winner of the Irish Close championship. The word was spreading about him from that day forward.
Four Major championships later, McIlroy is the world No 1 and his fame has soared beyond golf.
His romances, his business affairs, his wealth and lifestyle are all scrutinised with great intensity, as was evident by the coverage of his relationship with Erica Stoll, who was photographed at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open accompanying McIlroy on the closing day of the event.
Much has been written and spoken about the tournament and the disappointment of his failure to make the cut, but apart from the playing aspect, this remarkable young man has stepped into a new arena by hosting the Irish Open via his Foundation.
McIlroy thus joins a tiny, elite group who have the distinction of their name linked with a Tour event.
Strictly speaking, on the PGA Tour, only two golfers have tournament title status: the late, great Byron Nelson via the AT&T Byron Nelson which was won by Australian Steven Bowditch last Sunday at TPC Four Seasons, and Arnold Palmer with the Arnold Palmer Invitational played at Bay Hill in March every year.
Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods don't have official billing on the Tournament listings, but everyone knows they are the central figures in two top-class events.
Nicklaus hosts The Memorial Tournament, which is being played at Muirfield Village golf club in Dublin, Ohio from this Thursday to next Sunday.
Woods has the Hero World Challenge, an elite invitational end-of-season tournament which was instituted in 1999 and has raised millions for his own charitable foundation.
The late Seve Ballesteros also made his mark with the setting up of the biennial Seve Trophy, last played in 2013, between GB & Ireland and the Continental Europe.
Ernie Els was announced last December as host and ambassador of the South African Open, the second oldest national championship in golf.
In Scotland, the European Tour recently announced that the 1999 Open Championship winner Paul Lawrie is to host the inaugural Paul Lawrie Match Play at Murcar Links in Aberdeen from July 30-August 2.
Byron Nelson was 56 in 1968 when his name went on the tournament banner; Jack Nicklaus was 36, at the time of the first Memorial Tournament; Arnold Palmer was 50 when the Citrus Open, the forerunner of his Invitational, moved to the club he owned in Bay Hill Club and Lodge; Ballesteros was 50 for the first Seve Trophy, Ernie Els is 45, and Paul Lawrie is 46.
Only Tiger Woods, who was 24 when he took on the World Challenge, has been a younger tournament host than McIlroy.
This looks to be the way forward for the Irish Open if the 26-year-old from Holywood, Co Down, is prepared to stay in situ as the host and ambassador.
The next four years will be pivotal for the game on this island as we head towards 2019 when, almost certainly, the British Open will be held in Royal Portrush.
Once, and hopefully it will be soon, the Open is confirmed for a return to Portrush for the first time since 1951, the spotlight will shine with ever increasing intensity on Irish golf, North and South.
The K Club looks likely for 2016, and Lough Erne has the Irish Open for 2017.
A move to links in 2018 and 2019 leading up to the Open is a tantalising prospect, especially as the next two home venues are at parkland lay-outs.
Already, the Rory-driven Irish Open has raised the tournament profile in terms of world-ranked players, publicity and spectator interest.
Dubai Duty Free are keen to remain on as tournament sponsor for 2016, provided the numbers stack up in analysis of the event regarding publicity, according to company executive vice-chairman Colm McLoughlin.
"I want to see what the value of the media return is: what the column inches and television and radio exposure is worth.
"Then there's Rory. I think Rory's involvement cannot be overstated.
"We all know how good a golfer he is, but I also think he's a fine young man.
"It's very impressive what he's doing here through his Foundation," he said.
Padraig Harrington gave his view on the importance of a headline figure, particularly a world name, connected to our Open.
"Rory obviously did a tremendous job this year. He's brought the tournament to a new level. As long as he continues to do that it will keep the tournament where it is, but it does need a benefactor like that.
"Look at Muirfield Village with Jack (Nicklaus) or Bay Hill with Arnie (Palmer), it's a big deal that they're pushing those events and supporting them. That makes them bigger events, even in the US," said Harrington.