Wednesday 24 April 2019

Ballyliffin braced for Open season

Rory McIlroy's final year as host is Donegal's big chance to shine as a golf destination

‘This is Donegal’s big chance to shine as a destination for golf tourism and they are determined to make the most of it’
‘This is Donegal’s big chance to shine as a destination for golf tourism and they are determined to make the most of it’

Dermot Gilleece

Back in 1968, Ballyliffin Golf Club signalled its long-term ambitions by splashing £5,000 on 360 acres of wonderfully promising linksland. Fifty years on, the fruits of those intrepid plans have led them to spearhead a remarkable outlay of €500,000 in bringing the $7m Dubai Duty Free Irish Open to Co Donegal for the first time.

It is a wonderful story of pride in one's home place. And given the beauty of the Inishowen Peninsula, we shouldn't be surprised that its inhabitants would want to show it off to the world.

Rory McIlroy. Photo: Sportsfile
Rory McIlroy. Photo: Sportsfile

Indeed with Binnion headland, Glashedy Rock and Malin Head dominating the panoramic view out to sea, the eager visitor could easily be deflected from matters royal and ancient. But not this week, when the Pat Ruddy-designed Glashedy Links will take centre-stage in the blue riband of Irish golf.

This is the dramatic stretch which joined the Old Links in a 36-hole set-up in 1995. Only three years later, Glashedy played host to the Donegal Irish Ladies Open in which the club's future general manager, John Farren, caddied for Scotland's Julie Forbes, the fifth-place finisher behind the winner, Sophie Gustafson of Sweden.

By his own admission, Farren's percentage of his player's reward of £3,646.40 wasn't quite enough to encourage early retirement. Four years on, Glashedy staged the North West of Ireland Open in which another Scot, Andrew Coltart, set a course-record 66 when tied second behind Sweden's Adam Mednick.

Then in October 2009, the 54-hole Great North Links Challenge was launched for club golfers who would also be competing at Portstewart and Royal Portrush. "We've got to be selling more than Ballyliffin, and there's a wealth of links golf up here," said Farren, who, as a native of nearby Carndonagh and the son of a past captain and president of the club, has played a key role in the pursuit of Irish Open status in the footprints of distinguished neighbours from Northern Ireland.

The beguiling seventh, a spectacular 174-yard par-three
The beguiling seventh, a spectacular 174-yard par-three

A measure, incidentally, of the success of the Great North Challenge as the first cross-border golf event of its kind, is that its 10th anniversary, three months from now, is already a sell-out.

Meanwhile, a poignant reminder of the tremendous impact the Irish Open has had on golfing life in this island, came with the recent news of the death of Hubert Green. In only three appearances as a highly popular competitor, he won as a debutant in 1977, was tied fifth in 1978 and was third in 1980.

He happened to be honoured by golf's Hall of Fame in 2007, the same year as Joe Carr, and when I introduced myself as being Irish, the smile broadened and the Alabama drawl became ever so slightly animated. "Oh, I loved Portmarnock, a great golf course with the wind, the pop-up shots, the horrible breaks," he mused. "The frustration of it all. That's what golf's about." Indeed.

Memories of Green lend telling emphasis to the importance of Irish players challenging strongly for the title, even if they don't manage to win. Mind you, there was huge excitement in 2007 when Pádraig Harrington emerged victorious after a play-off against Bradley Dredge over the long 18th at Adare Manor. Shane Lowry then lifted spirits in wretched conditions at Co Louth two years later. And memories will long endure of Rory McIlroy's superb fairway wood shots to the 70th and 72nd greens in his thrilling triumph at The K Club two years ago.

Such was the impact of Skerries professional Jimmy Kinsella, on the climactic stage of the 1977 championship, that it was vividly recalled by Ben Crenshaw almost 30 years later. Before maturing to two US Masters triumphs, Crenshaw won the 1976 Irish Open and was runner-up to Green the following year.

"It was a really great effort by Jimmy, what with his heart problem and everything," Crenshaw told me at Oakland Hills during the 2004 Ryder Cup matches. "He was a great guy and a fine player. Mind you, if you blinked, you'd miss his swing."

It proved to be easily the best of 12 Irish Open appearances by Kinsella. With wildly enthusiastic galleries cheering him on, the player they affectionately call 'The Gink', closed with a 71 for a share of third place with English left-hander Peter Dawson and the embryonic shark, Greg Norman. His reward of £2,066.67 was almost double what he had received for winning the Madrid Open five years previously.

Green would have approved of the way Jon Rahm embraced Portstewart's challenge 12 months ago, when a triumphant march made him the fourth Spanish winner of the title, in the distinguished company of Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia.

At 22 and little more than a year in professional ranks, Rahm had a sparkling aggregate of 264 to win by three strokes. "I learned a lot about myself," he said after setting a championship record of 24-under par. "I know now that I have what it takes to perform properly on a links golf course."

Just as his illustrious compatriots did, he is returning to defend, which is a tremendous boost to the event. Among former champions joining him will be a gifted Finn who is taking a particularly interesting route to Ballyliffin. Prior to landing the 2014 title at Fota Island, Mikko Ilonen become the first Continental European to capture the West of Ireland Amateur Championship, when it was played at Enniscrone GC in 1999. Now, as part of the club's centenary celebrations, he is to be accorded honorary life membership tomorrow, before heading north.

This particular staging is also notable as the finale of McIlroy's four-year involvement as host, through his foundation. "We'd love an Irish winner, but from a personal standpoint, I would be especially pleased to see Rory do it, if only for his tremendous contribution to the championship and to our club over the years," said Farren.

For lesser mortals, the chase for precious Ryder Cup points will have an appropriate setting, and Paul Dunne's ambitions were reflected in a visit to Glashedy last month. It allowed him to note the various refinements that have been undertaken on one of the best creations by architect Ruddy, whose work previously graced the Irish Open over four years at Druid's Glen.

All of the 90 bunkers were revetted last winter, including new traps on the first, second and third holes. And from seven new tees, an additional 252 yards brings the overall length to a substantial 7,462 (Par 72), up 240 yards on the co-sanctioned event of 16 years ago. The most notable change is at the long fourth where a back-marker set in rocks has lengthened the hole by 117 yards to a formidable challenge of 594.

The other main feature on the outward journey is the beguiling seventh, a spectacular 174-yard par-three from an elevated tee. Challengers may discover that its Gaelic name, Loch na nDeor, which translates as the lough of tears, is chillingly appropriate.

With three par fives and three par threes, Glashedy has the same configuration as Portmarnock. And, significantly, with the exception of the 394-yard 10th, all of the 12 par fours measure in excess of 400 yards.

Meanwhile, recent sunshine has greatly heightened the sense of anticipation since news of this week's happening was confirmed 12 months ago. This is Donegal's big chance to shine as a destination for golf tourism and they are determined to make the most of it.

By way of attempting to kill perceived misconceptions, Farren insisted: "We're a lot more accessible than people think - 28 miles from Derry Airport, half an hour from Derry, 90 minutes from Belfast and three-and-a-half hours from the north side of Dublin. Our ambition is to set up Derry as a hub for golf in the North-West. It's on the agenda of local councils on both sides of the Border and has received a tremendous lift with the news of a 150-bedroom hotel in Derry, coming on stream."

The effort and enthusiasm is remarkable. Ballyliffin have been attempting to land this prize for more than 10 years, only for a major economic downturn to intervene. Financial constraints, however, didn't stop them from chipping away at the European Tour as a destination in waiting.

Along the way, one imagines that the business ties created by Farren with his golfing brethren on the other side of the border, would be quite an eye-opener for committed Brexiteers. "We work together with Portstewart and Royal Portrush in the knowledge that nobody travels to this part of the island just to play one or two courses," said Farren. "You're talking four, five or six venues. We sell a package. And October's competition is called The Great North Links as a tribute to the outstanding quality of the terrain."

While attending the launch of that particular event, I could sense first-hand the extraordinary zeal for golf in the area. A perfect example came on a drive with Farren from Portstewart back to the Lough Foyle ferry and the crossing to Greencastle. As we surveyed the forbidding façade of Magilligan Prison en route, the Donegalman turned to me and remarked: "The real pity of the place is that it stands on wonderful linksland." And you knew he meant every word.

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