Monday 18 December 2017

Dermot Gilleece: Open season for north courses sees green fee revenues soar

The par 4 8th hole at the Strand Course in Portstewart, which will host this year’s Irish Open
The par 4 8th hole at the Strand Course in Portstewart, which will host this year’s Irish Open

Dermot Gilleece

Portstewart GC expect to surpass £1m in annual green fee revenue as a direct consequence of staging the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in July. And in the not too distant future they’re looking to a return visit by the $7m event, hosted by the Rory McIlroy Foundation.

It’s a remarkable story of quiet endeavour in the formidable shadow of their neighbours at Royal Portrush, three miles along the North Atlantic coast. Indeed the more ambitious among them are bold enough to believe that they, too, could one day stage the Open Championship.

Portstewart have clearly come a long way from a speculative, promotional letter written by Michael Moss to the Golfing Union of Ireland 30 years ago. This culminated in the staging of the Irish Close Championship of 1992, when Gary Murphy captured the title by beating JP Fitzgerald, McIlroy’s current caddie, in the final. 

It was the first, significant test for the newly completed Strand Course, where seven new holes (2nd to 8th) were built to a design by the club’s four-handicap greens convenor, Des Giffin. I savoured them again last Wednesday, and the manner of their maturity is truly breathtaking.

Back in 1992, as an industrious secretary/manager, Moss talked of green-fee income of £200,000 for their 45 holes. Further land purchase made for an increase to 54 holes in 1999, comprising the Strand Course, the adjoining Riverside Course and the Old Course, a mile down the town. 

Since then, staging the British Amateur Championship in 2014 and the British Women’s a year later has given them a strong profile with the Royal and Ancient. And their facilities were embellished by the construction of a new clubhouse of 26,000 square feet. Irish Open organisers won’t want for anything.

Meanwhile, having filled the role since 1978, Moss was succeeded as secretary/manager by Judith Braniff last February and is now the club’s Tournament Director. Reflecting on grim times during the Troubles, when modest tourist traffic was limited to July and August, he said: “Now our season stretches from St Patrick’s Day to the end of October. 

“It’s been a staggering turnaround since peace came to the province in 1995. We’re looking at green fee income in the region of £900,000 this year, with the biggest growth on the Strand, our championship course.

“But I believe the Irish Open is going to be absolutely huge for the club and the town. We’re looking at a green fee increase of at least 20 per cent next year, bringing us through the million barrier. That’s a very nice number, when you think of where we once were.

“My only concern for the future regards Brexit. I would hate to see anything done border-wise, or the stuff I lived with when I was a student at Trinity.”

It is estimated that green fees at Royal Portrush are currently generating £1.5m, which is certain to soar when The Open returns there in 2019. And it is the prospect of further Opens at Portrush which convinces Moss that the European Tour will see Portstewart as an increasingly attractive option for future Irish Opens north of the border.

As I took in the spectacle of Giffin’s route through towering duneland, there was the charming backdrop of a modest skiff on the River Bann, its spinnaker filled by a fresh west wind. This was on the 461-yard fifth, a stunning par four culminating in a narrow entrance to a menacingly contoured green.

Interestingly, 11 bunkers were deemed sufficient to defend the front nine, compared with 44 on the homeward journey. Either way, the overall impact of the 7,118-yard stretch was to emphasise the great loss the gender issue has meant for iconic venues south of the border. 

Portmarnock and Royal Dublin, which staged the Irish Open on no fewer than 25 occasions between 1927 and 1990, are no longer thought appropriate venues because of their single-sex status. And as if to rub salt in, McIlroy said: “Portmarnock would be one of the most perfect venues for the Irish Open, with its proximity to Dublin and Dublin Airport.”

But it came as no surprise to hear him add that the gender issue had to be overcome before it could be restored to the Irish Open fold. And he’s right. Being correct before the law doesn’t wash any more, especially where public money is involved. 

Back at Portstewart, the presence of Simon Alliss, championship director with the European Tour, created a delightful link with the past. His father, Peter, and grandfather, Percy, were both there in 1951 as qualifying competitors in the Open Championship.

In fact through the persuasive powers of colleague and Portstewart native, Maureen Madill, from the commentary box of the BBC, Peter Alliss plans to travel over for the Irish Open where the club are planning a special evening for him. “We’re delighted at the prospect,” said captain, Paul Hewitt.

It is not yet clear whether the attendance will include 82-year-old Garth Giffin, Des’s older brother, who is recovering from hip surgery. He recalled to me how he caddied for Percy Alliss in practice and qualifying rounds, before the player had to withdraw from the Open because of jaundice.

“So on the big day, I got to caddie for an amateur I could probably have beaten myself,” he said. Which wouldn’t have been a great stretch, since he played off one.

“I wrote to Peter a few years back, prompted by something he said on television and I mentioned about having caddied for his father. He replied with a very nice letter, recounting his experience with his older brother, Alec, during the 1951 Open. Peter missed the cut [after carding 79, 80], which he blamed on himself and Alex meeting up with a couple of local girls in Portrush. Seeing he was a lad of 20 at the time, who could blame him?”

A little envious of their neighbour’s impending rise in status, Portstewart attempted to upgrade the Strand Course prior to 1951 by leasing land for four new holes. But the project was abandoned and their established layout duly sufficed for Open qualifying.

When I suggested to Garth that as a civil engineer he might have been better qualified than his school-teaching brother to do the design work on the Strand, he responded “of course”, with a gentle chuckle. “Des and I are life-long members of Portstewart,” he added. “In fact, apart from a few years, I’ve been a member from when I was 12. That’s 70 years ago.”

Finally, while Ilie Nastase continues to be vilified for sexist comments in his native Romania, it should be noted he performed a great service to Irish Open devotees, albeit unwittingly. It had to do with events more than 40 years ago.

To complement their involvement in golf, Carrolls sponsored the Irish Open Tennis Championships at Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, to the extent of a substantial prize fund of £15,000. By July 1974, however, they had had enough. That was when their top attraction, Nastase, left a very bad taste through a shock late withdrawal from the event.

By early 1975, with tennis firmly in the past, Carrolls set their sights on reviving the Irish Open, with a prize fund of £30,000. A bright new era had dawned in Irish golf, courtesy of a notoriously nasty man.

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