Irish Open may head North as '3' pull out
LESS than two years after '3' was feted as the magic number for the Irish Open, the mobile phone network yesterday performed a vanishing act which shocked golf and pitched the nation's premier professional event deep into crisis.
Robert Finnegan, chief executive of '3' Ireland, yesterday informed European Tour chief George O'Grady of his company's decision to take advantage of an opt-out clause in their three-year contract to sponsor the event.
A statement issued on Finnegan's behalf made it plain that the €7.5m deal struck with the FAI last August to sponsor the national team and Irish soccer in general gave '3' the "mass market" appeal it desired ... so they gave next summer's golf showpiece the boot.
The four-year agreement with the FAI was signed on August 6, just five days after the Irish Open's reputation as one of the most atmospheric and popular events on Tour had been restored during a spectacularly successful week in Killarney. Even at the moment of its rebirth, the Irish Open clearly was heading back into the poverty 'Trap'.
"Following a review of its sponsorship portfolio, a decision was taken to streamline activities. 3 believes its support of the Irish football team will deliver the most commercial value for the brand into the future," the company stated.
Though delighted with "the platform in the business community" afforded them by the Irish Open, a company spokesman confirmed last night that when it came to its potential for attracting customers, soccer won hands down.
So, three months after 80,000 customers flooded Killarney's Killeen Course and watched England's Ross Fisher eclipse Padraig Harrington in a thrilling race for Irish golf's biggest prize, the event rejoins the breadline, only this time the country is bust!
The prospect of finding a new sponsor is bleak in the current financial climate at home and abroad. Fearing the worst after months of silence from '3', European Tour officials failed with a tentative approach to Barclays Bank in Singapore this week, for example.
Having invested millions of euro in helping prop up the Irish Open from 2004 to the arrival of '3' in March 2009, the Tour is not in a position to delve as deep into its financial reserves again.
The positive impact of images of the 2010 Irish Open at Killarney being beamed into 395m households in 46 countries around the globe and golf's importance in attracting tourists, might have made the event's survival a priority for Government at any other time in the State's history ... yet hardly now.
Finnegan revealed '3' spent €8m on their sponsorship of the past two Irish Open championships.
When it came to the running of last August's event, however, they provided €2m of the €3m purse; Failte Ireland stumped up the other €1m, while gate receipts covered the Tour's estimated €1.2m outlay on staging costs.
"We have just received this news today and will be reviewing the situation regarding the Irish Open for 2011 with the European Tour," said Keith McCormack, Failte Ireland's head of business tourism and golf.
"We view the Irish Open as a flagship marketing event. Promoting Ireland not just as a fantastic golfing venue but also as a welcoming and beautiful destination."
Few destinations have served the event better than Killarney and general manager Maurice O'Meara justifiably expressed the club's "pride in helping the Irish Open back onto the map" and it's enthusiasm "to work with any new sponsor" by hosting the tournament in 2011.
US Open champion and Ryder Cup hero Graeme McDowell expressed "huge disappointment that '3' have pulled out, having done so many great things with the event.
"It's imperative we find a way to make the Irish Open happen next year as to have no event in Ireland would be a travesty with the strength of Irish golf right now.
"The markets are tough, especially in Ireland, but all the Irish players will be fully behind the drive to make this event happen," he said.
Given the astonishing success of our players, it should be unthinkable for the tournament to die.
As the Republic prepares to fight for its financial survival, might a sojourn in the Six Counties offer best hope for the Irish Open?