Wednesday 13 December 2017

Analysis: Money talks as Irish Open steps up into the multi-million bracket to attract top world stars

Padraig Harrington. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Padraig Harrington. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Money talks in the world of professional golf, and the bigger the money on offer, the more respect a tournament such as the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open commands among the world's elite players.

If the Irish national championship, an event with a proud history which has been won by some of the world's greatest golfers, offered a €1million prize fund such as the recent Lyoness Open or €1.5m at the Nordea Masters, it's a fair bet that top world-ranked players such as Justin Rose, Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm would sit out this week.

But throw a $7m dollar prize fund into the pot and make the DDF Irish Open part of a whole series of events dubbed 'The Rolex Series' - eight in all - and now you're getting people's attention.

With the big fund comes a number of other attractive elements such as prestige and world ranking points.

The opportunity to have a run over a links course such as Portstewart has to be part of the equation this close to the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale when a headline star such as Olympic champion Justin Rose (right) runs through the pros and cons of a trip to Northern Ireland.

A player of his calibre also looks at the competition he is likely to face in any tournament.

Justin Rose. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Justin Rose. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Believe it or not, most times the Justin Roses, Pádraig Harringtons, and Rory McIlroys of the golfing world do not feed off easy meat.

The big beasts like to throw down the gauntlet to their peers and test themselves in the white heat of competition.

They thrive on the edge, in an atmosphere where the air crackles with tension and where one inspired shot, or a simple bad bounce into a horrible lie, can determine their fate.

If they could ask anything of the golfing gods in the big tournaments, their prayer would go something along these lines: "Please, please, let me get into contention on Sunday and I'll take my chances on the back nine, however it may turn out. But deliver me from mediocrity, from being an also-ran in 20th or 30th place."

So don't bother inviting a Justin Rose to an Irish Open if it's not going to be absolutely worth his while.

There's a reason he has not played in our national championship for seven years. It's called the PGA Tour.

The reality of golf is that the USA is the land of milk, honey, and vast opportunity for those players good enough to ply their trade on the manicured fairways of the Tour venues across the Atlantic.

Most weeks, the players tee it up in pursuit of a slice of a prize fund in the region of $6m dollars, with a minimum one million dollars for the winner.

This week the PGA Tour presents the Greenbrier Classic. Prize money is €7,100,000. That's life on a continent where most Tour stops require a flight of around four hours.

The European Tour's season takes in 47 events across 26 countries - something of a global reach but one which requires more travelling than in the USA.

No wonder the best players from the European Tour graduate as quickly as they can to share in the American dream, with the Irish stars accepting that most of their year will be spent on the PGA Tour.

In that context, great credit is due to Keith Pelley, the ambitious CEO of the European Tour, backed by generous sponsors such as Rolex and Dubai Duty Free, who have combined to do a great job in creating a new narrative for the circuit.

But think about how, week in, week out, that compares to the Big Brother Tour on the other side of the pond.

This week at Portstewart, the first prize is just over €1m. Nice money. Big, big cheque.

If you doubt the significance of such a week's earnings, just ask Alex Noren or Tommy Fleetwood who each earned a similar amount of dosh for their victories in the BMW PGA Championship and last week's HNA Open de France, the first two events in the Rolex Series.

It is, however, sobering to reflect that already in this 2016-'17 campaign, world number two Hideki Matsuyama has banked three first-prize cheques of €1.62m, €1.2m, and €1m for victories on the PGA Tour.

Jon Rahm, the new Spanish wonder kid, also knows what a seven-figure first prize looks like, with €1,206,000 awarded to him for winning the Farmers Insurance Open in January.

Happily, the best Irish golfers are no strangers to winning that kind of money, and they relish the opportunity to do so on home soil in the Irish Open this week.

Yesterday, Graeme McDowell and Pádraig Harrington (left) hailed Rory McIlroy for his immense contribution to making this stellar tournament possible.

All three golfers are multi-millionaires but Irish Open glory carries a greater allure for the home contingent, much as they appreciate the rewards.

Shane Lowry highlighted the priority to perform first, and then let the monetary benefits fall where they will. Ultimately, the players do not determine prize funds. "I'd like to think I don't play for the money," he said.

"Obviously you do because it's your job, so at the end of the day you are playing for money, but I'm never going down 18 on Sunday thinking, 'Jeez, if I make bogey here I'll cost myself 50 grand.'

"If you were to play like that you'd never do any good."

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