Departing chief George O'Grady deserves nod of approval
European Tour boss has always kept Irish Open close to his heart, writes Dermot Gilleece
With the imminent departure of George O'Grady as chief executive of the European Tour, the Irish Open will have lost one of its staunchest supporters. In fact, tournament golf in this country owes a deep debt of gratitude to this straight-talking Englishman with the right-sounding name.
Word is that O'Grady is being pushed into retirement. And while making no comment on the matter, he is known to be deeply disappointed with the recent announcement which means, among other things, that he will be out of office when his considerable effort towards getting golf back into the Olympic Games becomes a reality in 2016.
"I think it is safe to say that golf's inclusion in the Olympics would not have been possible without George's leadership, vision and partnership in growing the game around the world," said his American counterpart Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour.
O'Grady's attitude to the Irish Open was captured neatly in the course of a chat we had earlier this year. "We in the European Tour have done well out of golf in Ireland and I believe the country should have a minimum of one good tournament."
This level of commitment became absolutely vital when 3Mobile ended their involvement as title sponsors in 2010 and repeated attempts to find a replacement failed. Here was an economic reality which lent a hollow ring to the well-loved assertion around the south-west that golfers are "waterproof, war-proof and recession-proof".
"I will give you three reasons why we believe in and are fully committed to the future of the Irish Open," O'Grady went on. "One, we see Ireland as a traditional, golf-driven country; two, we've seen a situation in Ireland when it staged quite a few tournaments at the top level, to the point of being too many; three, we had the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club which we happily acknowledge we made some money out of."
Having joined the Tour in 1974, two years after its inception, O'Grady succeeded Ken Schofield as its chief in January 2005, so adopting responsibility for the Ryder Cup staging 20 months later. Reflecting on this milestone in Irish golf, he was moved to remark: "The American team were looked after superbly at The K Club. As hosts, we were responsible for both the visiting team and ourselves and everything was handled so well that we settled the bill quicker than any hotel bill in Ryder Cup history. Totally without argument."
His affection for this country is in no way contrived but a natural consequence of a remarkable family background. The first ever golf shots he hit were during school holidays in Portrush, giving the Dunluce Course a "special place in my life".
The fact is that his mother, Ethanie Hill, was a native of Portrush, who went south for a university education at Trinity College, Dublin, where she started out by reading music but switched to medicine a year later. This led her into contact with a fellow student named Richard O'Grady from Cork.
"The story in the family is that he gatecrashed her 21st birthday party without actually meeting her there," said their youngest son. "They first got to know each other after World War II by which stage they were both qualified doctors serving in the RAF in Newmarket."
By a quirk of service life and as the third of three boys, young George first saw the light in 1949 in far-off Singapore, where both his parents were working air-force doctors. Meanwhile, an enduring connection with Portrush came through one of two uncles, Dr Billy Hill, a keen ornithologist who practised medicine there all his life until his death three years ago.
O'Grady's affection for Royal Co Down, where the Irish Open returns next May for the first time since 1939, has more to do with its natural appeal: he simply loves the look and feel of the place. He recalled flying there from the Swiss Open for the 2007 Walker Cup and heading out on the course on his own to catch up with the matches.
"I had got fed up with playing the game at that stage, but walking the first three holes made me want to get back to it," he said. "Because it's such a spectacular location. Everything about it just smells right."
The Co Down staging, three years after Royal Portrush, can be traced to a long chat O'Grady had with Enda Kenny at the Irish Open in Killarney in July 2011. That was when the Taoiseach played in the pro-am with Rory McIlroy and his father, Gerry. "I hope Enda won't be offended when I say that he plays my kind of golf," O'Grady said later, before adding: "When we got down to the question of the tournament going North, it was clear that it would be his decision as to when that came about."
As it happened, the Taoiseach gave the 2012 Portrush staging his blessing and is also highly supportive of going to Co Down, where Rory McIlroy will be the tournament's host. But O'Grady insisted: "Our long-term partner remains the government of the South. They've been there for the longest time." He added: "Who knows what may happen down the line? We're taking this one step at a time."
Such language did nothing to diminish feelings of security about it all, largely because of the deep sense of involvement O'Grady always seemed to project about Irish matters. While on a broader level, his success in expanding the European Tour against the backdrop of the most severe recession in the history of tournament golf was a remarkable achievement.
He will most likely have gone from office by the time Irish Open 2015 comes around. And we can but hope that his replacement will be similarly supportive of Tour matters in these parts.
In the meantime, O'Grady deserves a nod of approval from players and supporters, North and South in this island, for believing in the future of our premier event.
Sunday Indo Sport