South African Open shows the way for Killarney
ONE message came through loud and clear yesterday as Ernie Els finished an enthralling final day at the South African Open one stroke clear of his compatriot, friend and rival Retief Goosen -- you don't need a mega-million euro prize-fund to produce a top-class tournament.
The purse on offer at Durban Country Club was 'just' €1m. Yet because South Africa has such an exciting coterie of players in the upper reaches of the world rankings, the 100th staging of their national open was always going to attract a field capable of capturing the public's imagination.
The galleries which followed every step of the thrilling 34-hole duel between Els and Goosen yesterday were almost on a par with those which thronged Killarney's Killeen Course at last August's Irish Open.
The salient point is that even in the wake of last month's shocking decision by mobile phone network '3' to jump ship, the Irish Open, albeit cash-strapped at present, is still exceptionally well endowed in the same way as its South African counterpart.
To a man, Ireland's European Tour stars have already pledged their allegiance to the cause in Killarney next summer. Given the special ambience at that venue on the August Bank Holiday weekend, the prospects of a full-blooded Irish Open showdown between the likes of Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington should once again bring fans out in their droves.
As we saw in Durban yesterday, the figure scribbled on the €158,500 cheque handed to Ernie Els at day's end was of less importance to him and those watching than the pride of winning his national title for a fifth time and the spectacular way in which it was achieved.
With each passing week since last month's decision by '3' to ditch the Irish Open, prospects look increasingly bleak of finding a new partner for Failte Ireland as tournament sponsors in 2011.
So encouraged was the European Tour by the phenomenal achievements of Irish players in recent seasons and the overwhelming public response to the event in Killarney last year, they have committed to stage it at the same time in the same place next summer.
Yet without further commercial backing, the Tour will be hard-pressed to top up the purse to €2m in 2011, never mind the €3m on offer this year.
In the absence of a replacement name sponsor, the figure seems more likely to be €1.5m, which is the cash threshold for events offering a full two years-plus exemption to its winner.
The consequences of cutting the tournament purse by half would not be as damaging as one might imagine to the prospects of luring Europe's top players to stop off in Killarney on their way to the Bridgestone World Championship at Firestone and the US PGA Championship in Atlanta a week later.
In fact, world ranking points are just as significant as cash when it comes to attracting the game's elite to events like the Irish Open.
While wishing Harrington and his backroom team at IMG every success in their laudable search for a new sponsor for the Irish Open, it'd probably be of more benefit to the tournament if the Dubliner got his act together on the golf course next year and forced his way back into the world's top 10.
The more Irish players there are in the upper reaches of the global rankings, the more points will be on offer in Killarney, increasing the event's appeal to golf's most ambitious players.
As he clasped the giant South African Open trophy, Els was positively delighted to have held off the hard-charging Goosen in the closing stages.
"In my 20 years as a professional, I've never had a day like that," said 'the Big Easy', who completed the final round in just 63 strokes, six-under par. The final two rounds were limited to 17 holes each because the short fourth was unplayable, effectively reducing par to 69.
"It was a wonderful choice to come here," added Els, who decided to enter the tournament three weeks ago. Though he won in Doral and at Bay Hill in the spring, he believed winning his national Open "really makes the year very good now".
In all, Els had 13 birdies and an eagle on his card yesterday, while Goosen landed 16 birdies in the 34 holes he played, four of them in his final five holes. Making a great final day even better for home fans were the performances of their own British Open-winner Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel in third and fourth place.
Damien McGrane wrapped up the final tournament of 2010 tied 33rd on seven-under, a finish worth €7,600 to the Kells man.