Monday 19 March 2018

Irish Open needs support of fans to survive the cut

A spectacular aerial view of the 18th hole at Killarney which hosts
the Irish Open this week.
A spectacular aerial view of the 18th hole at Killarney which hosts the Irish Open this week.

Karl MacGinty

LOCATION, location, location! That famous clarion call, first uttered by US department store magnate William Dillard, applies right across the business spectrum from real estate to movie-making.

It is, or should be, the first principle for the staging of professional golf tournaments.

In the case of the Irish Open, however, it had largely been ignored by the European Tour, resulting in the near-extinction of this august event and serious financial headaches for the Tour itself -- until this week, when the '3' Irish Open at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club will see the dawn, one hopes, of a brave new era for elite tournament golf in this country.

For the first time in years and, as I understand it, at the point of a metaphorical gun from the event's new sponsors, this year's Irish Open will at least satisfy two of the three basic ground rules for staging professional golf events.

Okay, the tournament's location on the Tour's annual schedule, key to the success of any event if it is to attract leading international players, is not ideal, despite its proximity to next month's cut-off point for Ryder Cup qualification.

Last week's Nordea Scandinavian Masters, for example, was far better placed to tempt US performers to stay on in Europe after the British Open, as Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler did. Why should a tournament offering a purse of only €1.6m (against €3m at Killarney this week) occupy this plum position on the roster? Sincere apologies for asking such a naïve question.

Yet the pressure to attract star performers to the Irish Open from abroad has been alleviated by the fact that so many leading lights of the modern game hail from Ireland.

For instance, a big fuss was made when the late Payne Stewart played the 1991 Irish Open at Killarney within days of his US Open victory at Hazeltine. Well, the current US Open champion, Graeme McDowell, is Irish and, suitably recovered from his sensational efforts at Pebble Beach, he'll tee it up at Killeen this week determined to win his national Open.

That the most exciting young player in world golf, Rory McIlroy, stands between McDowell and that ambition is a massive selling-point for this week's event, as is Clara hero Shane Lowry's defence of the trophy he picked up in such breathtaking fashion at Baltray last year (in fact, the first '3' Irish Open would have been an unmitigated, rain-sodden disaster without him).

Ironically, this young Offaly man has made such enormous strides in 14 months as a professional, he's better qualified to defend the title than he was to win it in the first place!


Then you have the travails of three-time Major champion Padraig Harrington, the brightest star of them all, whose staggering loss of form this year has a weird fascination all of its own. Down to 19th in the world, this is his lowest ranking in four years.

What the hell is going on with Harrington? Is he addled in the head? Has be lost too much weight (go see for yourself how thin he's become)? Or will normal service be resumed by the Dubliner this week in Killarney, easing one of European skipper Colin Montgomerie's greatest headaches?

In truth, one suspects not, with a veritable birdie-fest in Killarney more likely to suit the McIlroys of this world than an arch grinder like Harrington, though next week's Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone and the upcoming US PGA at rain-soused Whistling Straits should be more up his street.

Throw the recent resurgence of Darren Clarke into this week's pot at Killarney and there's every chance of a climax as thrilling for the home fans next Sunday as Richard S Johnson's victory in front of his countrymen in Stockholm last weekend.

This year's Irish Open certainly ticks the boxes when it comes to those other two great ground rules for the staging of professional golf tournaments.

Its location on the calendar certainly is a marked improvement after five successive years of being battered by foul weather in May. Nothing is more effective in killing off the enthusiasm of visiting professionals for an event than having their golf swing and their morale broken year in, year out by brutal playing conditions.

It may rain in Killarney this week, with Thursday and Friday most likely to see a few scattered showers, but at least the water will be warmer than in May.

Of course, the clash with the Galway Races is unfortunate (another reason last week's slot would have been ideal) but sponsors '3', who are new to the golf arena, deserve enormous credit for firmly standing their ground in negotiations and forcing the Irish Open back into high summer.

To enjoy success, an event must be located at an appealing, atmospheric venue. While the courses at Carton House, Adare Manor and Baltray were all world-class venues, their staging of the past five Irish Opens was horribly undermined by the weather.

The beautifully scenic lakes of Killarney, and the further atmosphere lent each evening by the annual Summerfest in the town itself, should help restore the special feelgood factor which used make the Irish Open a must for Europe's leading professionals but which has been lost in recent years.

Like every other aspect of life in this country, Irish golf has been forced to emerge from a period of appalling complacency.

The staging of the Ryder Cup at The K Club in 2006 represented a peak for the sport in Ireland but it and the many, many professional events staged on these shores in the run-up to the main event led to corporate and customer fatigue.

For example, after almost four years of near-neglect, Failte Ireland has only rediscovered any real enthusiasm for the promotion of golf tourism in recent months. Their recent signing of Harrington as an (honorary) golf ambassador and their renewed enthusiasm for the promotion of the Irish Open are two encouraging examples of this. As principal sponsors of Ireland's only surviving elite professional showcase, '3' and Failte Ireland stumped up the €3m purse for this week's event, not to mention an extensive national advertising campaign conducted by the mobile network.

In fairness to the Tour, it has ploughed in multi-million euro subsidies to keep the Irish Open alive since 2002 and the end of an 'era-of-plenty' at the event with the passing of the Murphys sponsorship, hastened, one must add, by official bias towards the European Open.


The recent addition of Heineken to the sponsorship portfolio has helped ease pressure on the Tour to make up staging costs of nearly €2m this week, though the Irish public still has a massive part to play in off-setting the vast bulk of this amount.

I'm informed advance ticket sales for this year's Irish Open are "nearly double what they were last year." Bottom line, if 80,000 people don't pour through the gates this week, the Tour is likely to face another hefty six-figure shortfall on the event.

Informants tell me the Tour's board is growing impatient (and quite rightly too) at continually having to subsidise the Irish Open when there are many other pressing areas requiring investment. In short, it must be able to stand on its own two feet.

To keep their national professional championship alive, Irish golf followers must vote this week with their feet. With everything in place in Killarney for, potentially, the most exciting tournament in decades, it truly is now or never for the Irish Open.

Irish Independent

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