Saturday 21 September 2019

Taking the Open road

McGinley uses Portrush preparation as carrot to attract top stars to Lahinch in absence of McIlroy's personality

The green on the 166 yard par 3 known as ‘Crater’ at Lahinch. Photo: David Cannon
The green on the 166 yard par 3 known as ‘Crater’ at Lahinch. Photo: David Cannon

Dermot Gilleece

Deep in the rich vein of stories associated with Brud Slattery, is one concerning two visiting Americans at Lahinch, anxious to take on the best duo the club could muster. The legendary secretary/manager knew instantly that it was time to send for his golfing partner, Mick O'Loughlin.

On being informed that the butcher from nearby Ennistymon would close his shop for the afternoon so as to accommodate the match, one of the Americans remarked: "He can't make much money doing that." To which Slattery replied: "No, but think of all the friends he makes."

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This is the spirit that Paul McGinley has bought into, in his role as host to the $7m Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, which starts on the Co Clare links on Thursday. And by way of combining pleasure with pragmatism, he will be applying some of the key principles which delivered a memorable Ryder Cup triumph under his captaincy at Gleneagles in 2014.

Trust is a McGinley byword. It is how he has been able to assemble personalities, both gifted and appealing, to offset the gap in ranking status caused by the absence of the world number-four, Rory McIlroy.

Acknowledging the importance of national Opens recently in Canada, McIlroy said: "They're very important. For the most part they're the oldest championships in our game." But with an unflinching focus further ahead, he added: "I'm standing here playing in your [Canadian] national Open and I'm not playing in my own this year, which is something. I've been very loyal and dedicated to the Irish Open. [But] I felt with the Open Championship being at Portrush, it was a chance for me to prepare more the way I wanted to."

The Irish will still be present in some strength, however, with special attention focused on Shane Lowry in this, the 10th staging since his stunning triumph as an amateur at Co Louth in 2009. And the ever-popular Pádraig Harrington will be having his first tournament outing here as the 2020 European Ryder Cup captain. Then there's the pro-am appearance of newly-crowned British Amateur champion James Sugrue.

Paul McGinley. Photo: John Dickson/Sportsfile
Paul McGinley. Photo: John Dickson/Sportsfile

From an overseas perspective, McGinley sold Lahinch to stars such as Jon Rahm, Louis Oosthuizen, Tommy Fleetwood, Ian Poulter and Danny Willett by "putting all the cards on the table". He said, "I told them how I was dealing with the R and A so that we could align Lahinch with the green-speeds (10.5) they're going to experience at Royal Portrush, as well as rough heights and fairway widths. We would be ensuring the best possible preparation for The Open."

He then revealed how he had arranged similar conditions for the Welsh Open which preceded Gleneagles. "That's exactly how I approached it," he said. "I got Celtic Manor looking as close as possible to what would be experienced in the Ryder Cup. I told players quietly, without going public on it, 'if you want a really good prep before the Ryder Cup, Wales will have the identical set-up'."

He also wants this Irish Open to be defined by the spectator experience, "like we had at Portmarnock and Royal Dublin". He explained: "We want to generate the sort of excitement like when the circus comes to town. Or a local festival. Which makes Lahinch, with its wonderful tradition and the warmth of its people, such a perfect venue. A rich canvas, if you will."

As a bonus, he could point to its proximity to Shannon Airport and to accommodation close to the course in the town itself. With all those ingredients in mind, he invited potential competitors to draw their own conclusions.

Click to view full size image
Click to view full size image

As it happened, his familiarity with every element of the place, made it an easy sell. Apart from capturing the South of Ireland Championship in 1991, he took time to study the significant upgrading that took place over the Millennium, through the design skills of architect Martin Hawtree.

A key element of Hawtree's brief was to restore what was considered to be the lost spirit of Alister MacKenzie from the old links. This was the celebrated architect whose involvement at Lahinch preceded what became his career-defining work at Augusta National. In which context, I can recall a fascinating conversation with Robert McCavery, the club's former professional.

"My father came here as professional/greenkeeper from Newcastle, Co Down, in 1927 and was here only a short time when MacKenzie arrived," he said. "He told me that MacKenzie was a very hard man to work for - cranky, difficult. A perfectionist.

"According to my father, it was contouring of the greens which separated him from other architects of the time. Most other courses had generally flat greens. You could see them out there on the course. They stood out from the rest of the layout."

On arrival at Lahinch, more than 70 years later, Hawtree was given sight of the original plans that MacKenzie drew up in 1927. For various economic and engineering reasons, not all of the holes and features designed by the architect were built at the time, which meant the job wasn't completed as originally conceived.

During the intervening years, several of the MacKenzie greens and their surroundings were flattened by some ill-advised locals. The bunkering also deteriorated to such a state as to be considered unworthy of what had once been regarded as a shrine of the game.

Hawtree's work to restore the original spirit and aims of MacKenzie, while incorporating a few ideas of his own, made a huge impression on McGinley. In terms of assembling a field, this knowledge and insight became invaluable compensation for not having the bartering credentials of a leading current player, which McIlroy used very effectively at Royal Co Down in 2015.

"In the run up to the Ryder Cup, I was communicating with players who were committed to play," he said. "In this, however, I was depending on goodwill, which is rather different.

"But to their credit, the players and their management teams responded really generously. Without being pushed, they remained in touch, open and honest, which I really appreciated. It was something I hadn't experienced before."

Despite the absence of McIlroy, the tournament's status regarding world ranking is quite comfortably at the level required by a Rolex Series event, which is a crucial consideration for the European Tour. Then there is the quality of the pre-championship pro-am in which the confirmed presence of pop-star Niall Horan will have considerable appeal, especially for younger fans.

A further endorsement of McGinley's efforts is that the chairman of Rolex, Bertrand Gros, is breaking from Wimbledon to compete in it for the first time. "With everything presented in the best way possible, we're hoping to make him aware of the sort of show we're putting on," said McGinley.

Meanwhile, in the insatiable nature of these events, attention is already turned to next year, before a ball has even been struck at Lahinch. I understand that the title sponsors are keen on a return to the Dublin area, putting the spotlight on The Island, which successfully shared strokeplay qualifying duties with Portmarnock in the recent Amateur Championship.

Options for a links course in the Dublin area are seriously limited, with Portmarnock Links out of the reckoning because of a proposed change of ownership and with Portmarnock and Royal Dublin ineligible because of their single-gender status. So, a return to the parkland of The K Club cannot be ruled out.

Either way, the future looks bright. There is no indication as to whether Harrington will add to his Ryder Cup commitments by succeeding McGinley as host. Darren Clarke is standing by.

And the sponsors? "We are committed up to 2020," said Colm McLoughlin, CEO of Dubai Duty Free. "Then we have an option to renew for a further two years after that."

His thoughts on maintaining his company's commitment? "I think we will stick with it," was his encouraging reply.

And what of McGinley? "I'm only going to do this once," he responded with some conviction. "Then I'm going to walk away and say thanks very much, having put my heart and soul into it."

Back with Brud Slattery who, on hearing of a neighbour's demise, famously contemplated for a moment before solemnly declaring: "Wasn't it a terrible pity he had to pass away without curing that dreadful slice of his."

We're in for a unique golfing treat in Lahinch this week.

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