Tuesday 24 April 2018

€1m reasons to thank McIlroy for revitalising the Irish Open

Tommy Fleetwood with the trophy after his victory in the Open de France. Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Tommy Fleetwood with the trophy after his victory in the Open de France. Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

The winner of the 62nd staging of the Irish Open, sponsored by Dubai Duty Free, should doff his cap to Rory McIlroy and say 'thanks a million'.

One million euro. That's the prize the 2017 champion will receive next Sunday when the biggest, best, and brightest Irish Open concludes at Portstewart Golf Club.

This Irish Open carries a $7million prize fund as part of the European Tour's elite Rolex Series, which is the brainchild of Tour CEO Keith Pelley.

And with Rory McIlroy's status as a golfing superstar, the Irish Open was a no-brainer for inclusion in the new Series.

Equally important, in just their third year as sponsors, Dubai Duty Free have achieved their aim - and McIlroy's - of moving the tournament closer to the heart of the summer.

Links golf two weeks away from the Open Championship, world-ranking and Race to Dubai points, and the kind of prize money that gets the attention of even the wealthiest golfers on the planet. It is a potent combination.

Achievements

This elevated level for the Irish Open marks a decade of stunning growth in the achievements and reputation of Irish golf, which began on May 22, 2007, when Padraig Harrington won at Adare Manor Resort, becoming the first home winner since John O'Leary in 1982.

In his press conference Harrington spoke of his excitement at winning the Irish title and, prophetically as it turned out, of his major championship ambitions.

"Obviously in terms of the quality of events I've got to win, it's obviously world events and majors," he said.

"This (the Irish Open) is, in my mind, a bigger event, it's something I would prefer to win over any tournament bar a major. So it's majors next, no question about it," said Harrington.

How right he was. Harrington's first Claret Jug was won at Carnoustie in July 2007, and that was just the start of a golden era for the Irish tournament professionals.

That 2007 season also marked the introduction of Rory McIlroy to the paid ranks after the Walker Cup held at Royal County Down.

We knew McIlroy had the potential for greatness. Little did we know that he would go above and beyond the call of duty to eventually carry the banner for the Irish Open.

All of that was in the future. In the meantime Harrington had a glorious 2008, winning the Open and US PGA within weeks of each other.

His success was the equivalent of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier in 1954. Once Harrington showed the way, major titles became a reality for golfers from this island.

However, the Irish Open lost much of its lustre from 2007, although the European Tour, under chief Executive George O'Grady, and help from the Irish government through tourism money helped keep it alive.

Then came a turning point in 2012 when the Tour, gently persuaded by the Northern Irish major winners, and the governments on both parts of the island, broke new ground by taking the championship north to Royal Portrush.

Success

It was a great success. The Northern Ireland golf fans, always great supporters of the Irish Open, flocked through the gates in record numbers.

Carton House in 2013 and Fota Island in '14, was followed by the next breakthrough - Dubai Duty Free (DDF) teaming up with Rory McIlroy's charitable Foundation to bring the tournament to Royal County Down.

Credit to Colm McLoughlin, chief executive of DDF, for taking a chance on an initial one-year sponsorship experiment, but McIlroy was absolutely central to the deal.

From McIlroy's perspective, he had won four majors by then, was wealthy beyond his dreams, and he needed something more than just a golfing challenge to get his juices flowing in the Irish Open, a tournament in which he had never performed particularly well.

He found that motivation in old-fashioned charity.

McIlroy gave his money and his time, and used his friendships and reputation to bring over star names such as Ernie Els, Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia to Royal County Down in 2015.

Last year at the K Club McIlroy got a tangible reward by winning the Irish Open, thus achieving one of his most cherished goals.

The glory was enough for him. McIlroy handed over his €666,000 winning cheque to the Rory Foundation, ensuring that the overall contribution from the Irish Open would be around €1million for charitable causes.

Irish Independent

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