Monday 23 April 2018

Portmarnock change a key factor in Tour's links swing plans

'After a series of informal discussions among its members, I understand that Portmarnock’s situation has now stalled'
'After a series of informal discussions among its members, I understand that Portmarnock’s situation has now stalled'

Dermot Gilleece

A mid-summer links swing involving the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, the Scottish Open and the Open Championship, is a clear possibility by 2018. And my understanding is that the availability of Portmarnock GC would effectively copperfasten such a move.

Rory McIlroy, who will be spearheading this year's staging at The K Club on May 19-22 through his Foundation, greatly admires the North Dublin links. But there is no question of the European Tour considering Portmarnock while it remains a single-gender club.

In this context, they are becoming increasingly isolated. Only last week, the Royal and Ancient expressed satisfaction that the men's and women's clubs at Royal Troon had broken new ground with a joint championship committee for this year's Open.

Troon's men are discussing the gender issue, as are Muirfield, against the background of Royal St George's opening their doors to women last year.

After a series of informal discussions among its members, I understand that Portmarnock's situation has now stalled. This was apparently caused by the discovery in talks with the Irish Ladies Golf Union (ILGU) that they couldn't simply admit a small group of women members, as Augusta National did, to be considered effectively a mixed club.

Under the constitution of the ILGU, it would be necessary to form a women's club there, with a minimum of 15 members, though that number could be smaller. "I can safely say that the board of the ILGU would be very supportive of Portmarnock on this issue," was yesterday's reaction from chief executive Sinéad Heraty.

Interestingly, the process will be simplified considerably within the next three years through the creation of an entirely new governing body to administer men's and women's golf in this country, with the recently-formed Confederation of Golf in Ireland (CGI), operating as a promotional arm.

Meanwhile, a return to Portmarnock would be irresistible to the European Tour's chief executive, Keith Pelley, who had little room for manoeuvre this year, given golf's return to the Olympic Games and the autumn staging of the Ryder Cup.

In normal years, however, America's PGA Tour is relatively weak during late-June and July, when a links festival would have enormous appeal to US players. Though Pelley will have far more scope in 2017, he will probably need a further year to put his long-term plans into action.

By which stage a change in Portmarnock's status would create a marvellous platform for the Irish Open towards recreating its prominence under the Carrolls banner of 30 years ago. That is what McIlroy wants, and his commitment is evident in a decision, in a busy May schedule, to withdraw from the BMW/PGA Championship at Wentworth so as to accommodate the Irish Open, with an increased prize fund of €4m, the previous week.

Recapturing the past will be a serious challenge, however, given the rich and varied legacy of the Carrolls years. A story which remains delightfully fresh for me concerns the 1979 Irish Open and Ed Sneed, who came here four months after squandering the chance of US Masters glory by three-putting the last three greens and ultimately losing a play-off to Fuzzy Zoeller.

When I met up with him some years later in his capacity as a commentator for Fox Sports, he talked warmly of Portmarnock, where he was joined by his friend, John Mahaffey. "We still hadn't made a move after 54 holes on the Saturday," Sneed conceded. "Then, with a few hours to kill before a dinner date that night, John suggested we visit some of the local bars on the way back to our hotel in the city [in a courtesy car]."

So they embarked on a gentle pub-crawl, starting in Portmarnock and progressing to Baldoyle, having a beer in each and chatting to captivated locals. "It wasn't serious drinking, but we had a few," he acknowledged. "Later that evening, we and our wives went to dinner in the Mirabeau with Pat Heneghan of Carrolls."

Sneed went on: "There, we had some exquisite wines and brandy with our meal and the upshot of it was that I was in a terrible state the following morning. I was so sick that my caddie, Willie Aitchison, lay me down in the locker-room and applied cold towels to my face to try and bring me around. Even then, I feared I couldn't make it to the first tee and imagined the shame of having come all that way on a sponsor's invitation. But somehow, I made contact with the opening drive which I thinned down the fairway.

"The first, playing downwind, was no more than a drive and a wedge, but I needed a seven-iron. And when the ball landed on the green, I noticed a little blob of mud on it but was afraid to bend down to clean it. So I hit the putt and, what do you know, I holed it for a birdie."

From there, Sneed proceeded to play one of the finest rounds ever witnessed on the celebrated links. With a seven-under-par 65, he claimed second place, only a stroke behind Mark James.

"It was amazing," he concluded. "From a position of barely being able to play, I might have been Irish Open champion."

There will be other stories in May, this time more likely with a home flavour. As McIlroy put it: "I am extremely proud to come from these shores, where we are blessed with great, accessible courses."

And through the Irish Open, he wants to spread the news far and wide.

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