Wednesday 13 December 2017

No flags please, we're Irish

An Irish Open in Portrush would be a deserved, all-island celebration of McIlroy and McDowell's Major triumphs

KILLARNEY is a perfect fit for this month's Irish Open. Yet Royal Portrush is a must for 2012. Usually the piper (sponsor) calls the tune when it comes to selecting the venue for this island's open championship. The key word there is 'island' -- not nation!

For golf is an all-island sport which, under the administration of the GUI, the oldest golfing union in the world, pre-dates the formation of the Republic and the Six Counties.

So with respect to the Tricolour and the admirable ethos of white, or peace, between green and orange, the only flag which should legitimately fly over any Irish golf event is that of the Golfing Union of Ireland. It represents all four provinces in their entirety and, therefore, every golfer on the island, without exception.

The European Tour adopted the use of the Northern Ireland standard for players from the Six Counties at the height of the Troubles because of difficulties caused both for themselves and their families at home when either the Union flag or the Tricolour was flown in their honour.

The traditions represented by the national flags of the Republic and the United Kingdom probably would be better respected if neither were flown at major international golf events.

Why, for example, were two citizens of the UK, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, required to play under the Tricolour at last November's World Cup in China?

Because they were representing Ireland, I hear you cry. Indeed they were ... but that's the island of Ireland, not the Republic.

And what has this got to do with the Irish Open? Plenty, if one accepts the tournament as the international flagship of Irish golf.

As a venue, Killarney last year gave the world at large an image of Ireland which we all, North or South, could be proud of.

So inspirational were TV pictures of the event, with beautiful views across Lough Leane the event's broadcaster in the US, the Golf Channel, have decided to entertain executives, advertisers and clients at this year's Irish Open from July 28-31.


So warm was the welcome received by the event in Killarney and so great was the atmosphere (and revenue) generated by 80,000-plus crowds at the Killeen Course, the European Tour and Bord Failte were encouraged to go back there this summer, even in the absence of a title sponsor to replace '3'.

Following McIlroy's sensational US Open victory at Congressional, the public should come flocking to the fairway ropes in record numbers for a close-up view of the world's most exciting golfer, not to mention his fellow Major-winners McDowell and Padraig Harrington.

European Tour chief executive George O'Grady informs us that negotiations with a major multi-national corporation interested in sponsoring the Irish Open began in March and have been progressing nicely.

Though it came too late for this year's tournament, which is being propped up instead with €1.25m from Bord Failte and input from Irish-based companies and business figures, a multi-year deal should be in place by 2012.

While one traditionally might have expected the title sponsor to nominate the venue, we now have a situation with the Irish Open where the players, principally McIlroy, McDowell and Harrington, will have a major say in determining where the event will take place and when.

Interestingly, while the Tour outlined plans for the 2011 Irish Open at Bord Failte's head office in Dublin last Tuesday, McDowell was making an impressive and impassioned speech at his conferring with an honorary doctorate in science at Coleraine University.

Dr McDowell has a dream -- in fact, he has two! "To play the (British) Open Championship at Portrush is a wild dream," he said. "To play a European Tour event there is an achievable dream and I will do everything I can to make it happen."

Royal Portrush hosted the British Open in 1951 but the prospects of the event ever returning to the Dunluce links, one of the finest on the planet, are negligible because of the sheer scale of the event. This was the expert opinion of David Hill, until recently the championship secretary of the R&A, who conducted a study of the viability of Royal Portrush as a venue for the British Open six years ago.

"It would be a fantastic venue, but only for about 15,000 people a day," Hill explained in 2009, when road and infrastructural changes permitted the return of the British Open to Turnberry on the remote west Scotland coast for the first time in 15 years.

Attendances at recent British Opens in St Andrews and Hoylake topped 200,000 for the week and exceeded 40,000 per day, nearly three times more than the Dunluce could accommodate in comfort and safety by Hills' reckoning.

Even the 123,000 spectators who attended the 2009 Open in Turnberry would push the envelope a tad too far at Portrush, where reduced gate receipts and increased staging costs would be inevitable consequences of a trip across the North Channel.

"There would have to be an amazing investment to consider taking it back to Ireland," added Hill. "The Seniors Open was at Portrush (in 2004) and with 6,000 people we were struggling. It's jammed with normal holiday-makers as it is." It should be pointed out that Hill is a native of Portrush.

Yet the day when an Irish Open is staged at Portrush or Royal Co Down or anywhere else in Ulster is long overdue. Due credit must be paid to the astonishing achievements by golfers from the North in recent years.

This has been crystallised in the Major-winning feats of McDowell and McIlroy, and these two proud Ulstermen certainly have earned the right to play an Irish Open in their own backyard.

The days when political necessity (the Troubles) or, more recently, corporate interests dictated that the Irish Open should be staged exclusively in the Republic are gone. They're with the Celtic Tiger in his grave!

This island is too small and the threat posed by that waking giant of golf tourism, Scotland, is far too great to continue dividing already meagre resources.

Sure, the all-island concept is already embraced under the Tourism Ireland umbrella. It's inspiring, for example, to see a picture of McIlroy under the legend "Island of Ireland, Home of Champions" emblazoned on the Discover Ireland home page in the US.

However, Bord Failte would find it much harder to convince their political masters that an investment of €1.25m in an Irish Open on the scenic shores of Antrim might offer the same long-term value to the island as this year's event by Lough Leane.

Economically, golf tourism policy is far too important to the people of this island to be determined largely by the sale of bed-nights on 'our' side of the border.

We may have different colour banknotes, north and south, but the only true currency is the quality of Ireland's golf courses and the warmth of the welcome visitors can expect. No US golfer should feel he needs a history lesson to book a green fee.

We must do as McIlroy did at Congressional: pay homage to Irish golf through stellar achievement, and leave the flags where they lie.

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