Sunday 18 March 2018

Payback assured when visitors get bang for their buck

It's not just Irish golf that's feeling the pinch, writes Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

T wo local newspaper stories caught my attention last weekend in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. One concerned an unavailing 19-month search for a replacement sponsor of The Heritage Tournament, which has its final round at Harbour Town today. The other flagged the great value Ireland is currently offering American tourists.

In fact, both stories in The Island Packet had strong resonances for this country, given the Irish Open's ongoing problem in finding a title sponsor. Then there is the fascinating similarity between the employment situation in both areas.

Of a population of 4.56 million, 39 per cent or 1.78 million of South Carolinians are at work, a drop of 7.3 per cent since 2000. This leaves it a lowly 44th among the 50 states and goes some way towards explaining the challenge of supporting its only event on the PGA Tour.

The cost of sponsoring The Heritage with this weekend's prize fund of $5.7m, runs to between $7m and $10m, depending on the sponsor's requirements on items such as promotion, pro-am spots, admission tickets and corporate hospitality. Typically, this would be roughly 50 per cent more expensive than the Irish Open.

And similar to past experience for the Irish event, The Heritage lost its prime position on this year's schedule to the Valero Texas Open last weekend with a significantly larger prize fund of $6.2m. The post-Masters slot was especially attractive if the field happened to include the winner at Augusta National, as in 1985 when Bernhard Langer famously completed back-to-back victories. More recently, Zach Johnson, the newly-crowned 2007 Masters champion, competed there.

Mind you, the tournament's title, which has lost Verizon as sponsors, is somewhat overblown given that it came into existence as recently as 1969. But by way of compensation, huge emphasis is placed on a Scottish "heritage", with tartan at every turn. Indeed on entering the resort area, one is even confronted by a security guard in full piper's regalia, which, I have to confess, prompted only the mischievous thought that a Scottish gentleman should be defined as someone who can play the bagpipes but doesn't.

It has long been my view that as a reflection of golf's importance to the Irish tourist industry, the Government should significantly increase its support of the Irish Open through Fáilte Ireland. As it is, the bulk of this year's money is likely to come from the reserve fund of the European Tour, with support from Fáilte Ireland and two other subsidiary sponsors.

In this context and given South Carolina's comparable dependence on tourism to Killarney's, or indeed Ireland as a whole, it comes as something of a surprise that Governor Nikki Haley is insistent "tax dollars" will not be used to prop up The Heritage. Its survival this year was down to a $4m subvention from the Heritage Classic Foundation, a non-profit group which stages the event. Contributions of $1 million each also came from the town of Hilton Head and the surrounding county.

So to the travel section of The Island Packet and its headline 'Ireland's financial woes mean better deals for tourists'. The story, by Shawn Pogatchnik of the Associated Press agency, named a Chicago family of four -- husband, wife and two children -- who have just had a splendid week's holiday in Ireland for $5,000.

Pogatchnik reckoned the trip, which included "top-end seaside restaurants, a night in a five-star castle, even a walk through medieval woods with trained falcons at their beck and call" would have cost at least 50 per cent more a few years ago. According to AP's man: ". . . as Ireland enjoyed unprecedented prosperity during its Celtic Tiger boom of 1994-2007 (sic), the tourist experience suffered. Prices are still high in tourist hot-spots like the castle town of Kilkenny and the pub-crawl paradise of Galway. But visitors who do their homework can travel for a hefty discount."

These observations are especially true of Irish golf. Which allows me to make special mention of Portmarnock Links, which has just undergone a significant facelift in preparation for the new season.

As a member of Clontarf GC, my interest in the Links heightened, naturally, in the autumn of 2007 when a relocation deal was agreed which would have made it our new home. By July 2008, however, it had all fallen through, but not before a reputable independent observer informed me that the developed value of Clontarf's 77 acres would be in the region of €550m. Ah, the lunacy of it all.

The Links continues to prosper. Especially pleasing to the ear was the assertion by its director of golf, Moira Cassidy, that reasonable green fees for such a quality experience in the current climate should be "between €50 and €60". Some facilities at the upper end of the Irish market should consider those numbers. For instance, a friend of mine was quoted €180 recently for a mid-week round on the Old Course at Ballybunion.

As a key element in the upgrading, course superintendent Fintan Brennan has eliminated much of the heavy rough which was never really necessary, given that the main defence of the Links was always its greens and bunkering. And those fiendishly testing putting surfaces have been restored to 80 per cent fescue.

Then there are new tees, starting with the first which now has an elevated position behind the 18th green. Inspired by Ms Cassidy, it is visually most appealing, not least with the focus on the distant graveyard.

Even more dramatic is a new green extending the long 13th by more than 80 yards. A new tee on the challenging 16th creates a charming view to Lambay Island and scenic views are also enhanced by higher tees at the ninth, 10th, 11th and 13th holes.

Bernhard Langer, who lent his name to the links, walked the virgin terrain prior to the Irish Open at Mount Juliet in 1993. One suspects he would heartily approve of its latest incarnation.

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