Revitalised Irish Open must return to Killarney in 2011
AS the European golf circus and its star performers upped tents and left the lovely shores of Lough Leane yesterday, the clamour had already begun for the '3' Irish Open to return there next summer. Ireland's national championship was reborn over the August Bank Holiday weekend in Killarney.
After five years in which Europe's finest were brutalised by horribly wet and cold weather in Ireland each May, the event's rescheduling to high summer in one of the nation's liveliest and most beautiful tourism hot spots was a roaring success.
To a man, the stars want to go back to the Kingdom next year, while Killarney Golf and Fishing Club and the town itself, delighted by a €30m boost to the local economy, would love to become the tournament's annual home, as Augusta National is to the US Masters.
Okay, that may be stretching it.
Yet the Irish Open certainly needs a couple more years of convalescence in Killarney to truly restore its once proud reputation as one of the most player-friendly tournaments on the European schedule -- not to mention Ireland's image as a beautiful, relaxed and fun-loving place to bring all the family, whether you're a competitor at the Irish Open or an everyday golfer.
Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke insist that positive word of last week's tournament -- the inspiring way the course played and the convivial local atmosphere -- will spread throughout locker-rooms in professional golf.
Yet it'll take more than one summer to repair the damage done by years of complacency and neglect in the run-up to and after the 2006 Ryder Cup.
How lovely to hear Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin and the Bord Failte boys warble with delight about the positive impact TV images of this year's Irish Open in Killarney were already having in the US and around the world.
Yet Lough Leane, the towering Macgillycuddy Reeks and the Killeen course at Killarney had been every bit as beautiful and alluring for the 18 summers since the Irish Open was last played there in 1992.
Only nobody bothered to showcase them at the Irish Open during the Celtic Tiger era. The K Club was Mecca and, anyway, weren't golf tourists queuing in their droves for transatlantic flights to Dublin and Shannon?
Anyway, the Tour used to demand fees of €200,000 and more from any course wishing to host the Irish Open, which, naturally, militated against member clubs (like Killarney and the leading links courses).
The picture has changed markedly in recent recessionary years. Now, nobody can afford to pay site fees on top of the huge investment required to stage an Irish Open.
For example, Killarney spent about €300,000 refurbishing their clubhouse and other ancillary facilities for the Irish Open. However, the international inquiries that have poured in since last Thursday's first round hit the airwaves suggest their money, sweat and time were well invested.
The Tour executive certainly heaved a sigh of relief as 81,378 spectators poured through the gates over the four days of the tournament.
After underwriting the Irish Open each year since 2004, at a cumulative cost of several millions of euro, their board of directors had begun to doubt the viability of Ireland's lame duck of a national open.
Not any more, so enthusiastically did the Irish public embrace the opportunity of watching this country's 'golden generation' of professional golfers go through their paces.
By any calculation, the best attendance at an Irish Open since Ian Woosnam beat Philip Walton in a play-off at Portmarnock in 1989 will allow the event to break even for the first time in eight years.
Basically, the people of Ireland dug deep into their own pockets and obliterated any lingering doubts about the viability of their national championship. European Tour chief executive George O'Grady smiled with genuine delight on Sunday as he said: "The welcome the event received in Killarney has been spectacular, unbelievably so."
As for the event's prospects of returning there next year, he replied: "Ireland can decide if it returns to Killarney."
For 'Ireland', read mobile network '3' and the Government, through the national tourist board, the principal sponsors.
The decision to play the 2011 Irish Open on the Killeen course must be one of the most straightforward in golf history.
Yet it's indicative of the hard-nosed, businesslike approach of his company during their two-year association with the event that '3' Ireland's chief executive Robert Finnegan declined to make any announcement or forecast amid last Sunday's euphoria.
Should we go ahead and book our hotels in Killarney for next summer? "That's the six million dollar question," he replied.
"It'd be easy to make a decision in the heat of the moment, but I think the right thing to do is sit down in two months' time and evaluate -- talk to all the interested parties, look at the stats and then make the right decision. It's been a fantastic week. We've had beautiful surroundings down here, a fantastic opening day, great crowds and great golf. And we've been getting great vibes from the players and their families."
Yet Finnegan takes very seriously his company's option to review annually their three-year contract with the European Tour as title sponsor to the Irish Open, which he wielded like a big stick last year to force through the date change that was "absolutely critical" to this year's success.
"Had we not had a change of date, we'd have had to look very long and hard at our association. That shouldn't be underestimated in that respect," he said.
As for the review of this year's event, he added: "It's also important that the Tour also commit to the event in the way we'd want to see them commit -- we've got a couple of ideas we want to work on with them to enhance it even more next year."
The relationship between '3' and the Tour has not been cosy. That date change, achieved through "very robust negotiation" wasn't the only source of friction between them.
Yet, in conjunction with the enthusiastic support of Killarney Golf and Fishing Club and the local authorities, who even moved their annual 'Summer Fest' to Irish Open week, their partnership has achieved a truly phenomenal turnaround for the tournament.