Government rows in to keep flagship afloat
Government money will guarantee the future of the €2m Irish Open for at least another two or three years. And even if a title-sponsor cannot be found by then, the value of the blue riband event towards promoting Irish golf tourism will almost certainly secure its long-term survival.
Though last year's record-breaking staging at Royal Portrush made a profit of €1m, the possibility of a return to Northern Ireland will depend largely on purse-strings there. "No rota or formal undertaking of that nature has been established," said Fáilte Ireland chairman Redmond O'Donoghue. "But I would expect it to go North again in the not-to-distant future."
In the meantime, it is back on the Montgomerie Course at Carton House on June 27-30, marking the last involvement for O'Donoghue since he took up his current role five years ago. And he will depart the scene in late September more confident about the well-being of the Irish Open than at any time since the days of the Carrolls sponsorship.
"I'd bite the arm off a title sponsor if they happened along, though I think that's unlikely in the present economic environment," he went on. "Which means that the Government, through Fáilte Ireland, will continue to fill that role. At €1.25m, we're the biggest contributor." There's actually a total of 13 subsidiary sponsors including the host venue and such leading brands as Heineken, Emirates Airlines, Tullow Oil, BMW and Ballygowan.
When I reminded O'Donoghue that it hasn't been long since the Irish Open was seen as an event lurching from crisis to crisis, he visibly bristled. "The very idea of that really rankles with me," he said. "We are far from that. Is the future of the Irish Open reasonably secure? Absolutely. We work closely with the European Tour who, like us, are totally committed to it. And it will tick all the sponsorship boxes when the economy turns around. In the meantime, lazy thinkers will point to the absence of some big corporation's name over the title as indicating that the event is struggling. This is not true. Granted, with more support from the private sector you could have bigger prize-money, though the difference between a €2m and a €3m purse isn't night and day.
"We Irish rightly criticise our Government when they do wrong things, but we also have an obligation to acknowledge when they do the right things. This Government is very tourism-friendly and they've shown it by supporting great events like the Irish Open. This year, spectators will have the opportunity of seeing arguably the strongest field in European golf, outside of the British Open and last weekend's tournament at Wentworth."
To their credit, the organisers are going to considerable lengths to offer added value. As in an amphitheatre for 1,500 spectators around the green at the par three 17th, where stands are being erected at a cost of close on €50,000 along with a bar and a giant screen. Though considerably down-scaled from the notorious Phoenix Open "Open House at 17", it is expected to become a popular meeting point.
Given the considerable strain on the public purse right now, seven-figure funding of an event like the Irish Open predictably has its critics. Notable among them has been Oliver Barry, owner of Hollystown GC, who has claimed that Fáilte Ireland spending in this area has helped only elite golf establishments while doing nothing for business at the basic level. "I've spoken to Oliver and noted his comments," said O'Donoghue. "The great thing about Ireland, thank God, is that there are as many opinions as there are people. Nobody agrees on everything. That's as it should be."
Then, with some emphasis, he went on: "However, I would pathologically disagree with Oliver Barry. I don't know how many years Oliver has spent in marketing, but I've been close to it for 44 years. And in that time, I learned that the way to market anything is to use your flagship. When I was with the Ford Motor Company, you would promote Escort rally cars and Granada Ghias, but you'd be selling Fiestas. Different philosophies.
"What Oliver can't dispute are the figures from our recent research which indicate that 163,000 people come here to play golf every year. And they spend two-and-a-half times the average tourist. And golfers are more likely to repeat than any other
visitors. In the process, they generate revenue of €202m for the exchequer. That's two thirds of what we anticipate from The Gathering in which we're investing an awful lot and which, I might add, I enthusiastically support. But this golf revenue is there year in, year out, which makes it terribly important to the Irish Tourism industry. On that basis, I would have no problem in justifying what we're doing."
So why all the heart-searching? Why not have a Government commitment to support the Irish Open long-term and forget about title-sponsorship?
"Even with an ongoing commitment, you would always want to have an exit strategy whereby Government and Fáilte Ireland involvement would be scaled down," O'Donoghue added. "At the same time, you would be seeking to get the private sector more involved, though we would always maintain an association with the event. That would be the dream ticket. In the meantime, if it is necessary to continue pumping money into it, so be it. I'm sure the Government would subscribe to that. Then, in the event of it ticking the boxes for a major corporation, Government money could be diverted to other, needy projects within the tourism industry."
The Fáilte Ireland chief concluded: "Minister Michael Ring, Minister Varadkar and the Taoiseach are huge supporters of what golf and the Irish Open mean to this country. And by way of proving it, they'll all be at Carton House."
Which prompts the thought that despite their welcome support, they might be well advised to steer clear of the potentially rowdy 17th.