Questions still linger despite clarity on Irish Open venue
Mount Juliet was confirmed yesterday as the host venue for the 2020 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open but many questions remain unanswered as the event moves from July to May.
While the popular Jack Nicklaus-designed course will be staging the championship for the fourth time after a 25-year gap, there was no mention of a host star or an increase in the prize fund beyond the $7 million minimum guaranteed for a Rolex Series event.
The European Tour announced in February 2018 that with Rory McIlroy stepping away after his fourth stint as the face of the Irish Open at Ballyliffin last year, the event would be "hosted annually by some of the greats of the Irish game from 2019".
Paul McGinley was the first to pick up the gauntlet at Lahinch, which was a sell-out success this summer when Spain's Jon Rahm won for the second time in three years.
But while major winners Darren Clarke, Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell were also named last year as part of the hosting 'pool', the European Tour had "nothing to confirm" yesterday on a host for 2020.
Getting the right man in Kilkenny from May 28 to 31 next year will be key when it comes to marketing and attracting top players, especially now the event no longer forms part of a July links swing into The Open.
But it will be just as important to impress Dubai Duty Free and Rolex, who pump millions into the European Tour every year.
Getting big names to Kilkenny in late May is another challenge and while McIlroy had 13 of the top 50 in Royal County Down in 2015 and McGinley persuaded 12 to play at Lahinch in July, the 2020 Irish Open falls two weeks after the PGA Championship in San Francisco and less than three weeks before the US Open.
Mount Juliet is no stranger to star power, however, with Ryder Cup stalwarts Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Sam Torrance claiming the Irish Opens staged at the Thomastown venue from 1993 to 1995.
Former Masters champion Fred Couples beat eight-time Major winner Tom Watson in a 1997 Shell's Wonderful World of Golf challenge before Tiger Woods and Ernie Els won WGC American Express Championships in 2002 and 2004.
With Rahm promising to defend his title and McIlroy and reigning Open champion Shane Lowry also certain starters, Mount Juliet will mark the start in the countdown to the 2026 Ryder Cup at Adare Manor and Lowry's first appearance in Ireland since his Open win.
Dubai Duty Free's executive vice-chairman and CEO Colm McLoughlin has always been open to mixing parkland with links and with McIlroy's 2016 win at The K Club a pleasant memory, he'll be hoping for an Irish winner of the Masters in April.
"The estate, on the outskirts of Kilkenny, will be an easily accessible and exciting venue for both the players and the fans," Mr McLoughlin said.
"We also agree with the strategy, which both the European Tour and the previous hosts, Rory McIlroy and Paul McGinley have employed of moving the tournament around the island of Ireland to include north and south, links and parkland and this has been very successful.
"It has had a very positive effect on tourism and business in these regions, which is testament to the interest that the public have."
Mr McLoughlin said in Lahinch that he'd like to see the Tour and Rolex increase the prize fund but even with the Irish government promising greater support for the European Tour as part of its investment in the 2026 Ryder Cup, there is no news on an increase in the $7 million Irish Open purse just yet.