Monday 19 February 2018

Rolls Royce engine drives Irish Open to safer ground

Our Major stars have made the Irish Open a better proposition, says Dermot Gilleece

Having seen Pádraig Harrington inspire colleagues on this island to Major success, tournament organisers will hope he can continue to exert similar influence over their involvement in the Irish Open.

So far, it seems to be working, given that World No 1 Rory McIlroy has already committed to next year's staging at Carton House on June 27 to 30. But things can change, as players try to balance growing demands on their skills against an ever-present desire to reduce tournament commitments.

Their presence is crucial under a funding structure heavily reliant on strong gate receipts. As a reflection of clearly difficult times for European golf, Spain's only tournament next season will be their national open in April, compared with no fewer than six events as recently as last year.

"In an ideal world, I wouldn't be at Carton next June because it will be a fourth tournament in a row for me," said Harrington. "But the fact that it's the Irish Open changes things. I don't ever envisage missing it, except if it clashes with a Major championship. And that's not going to happen."

But he added: "If you were to look at every player's wish-list, it would tell you they'd like to play less. Though I'm happy to play 30 tournaments a year, there's a balance for everybody and Rory's planning to reduce his to 22 or 23. People have the notion that we turn up on a Thursday morning, play 72 holes and then go home, but it's never that simple. There's an increasing amount of stress around the event. I very rarely turn up later than Monday and I could be there on the Sunday, due to various commitments. And you need time to practise.

"Everybody knows when they've done too much and I wear a heart-rate monitor that tells me how I'm sleeping. An indication of how important the mind is in golf is that I hit the ball 20 yards further on a Thursday than I do on a Tuesday of tournament week. I wouldn't be up for it on Tuesday. But it's different for Rory.

"With all the pressures he's now under, the one thing he has going for him is that he can be ready for a tournament more easily than the rest of us. He's more of a Rolls Royce. The Wednesday pro-am seems to be enough for him. He knows he gets a little stale if he plays too much. Monty (Colin Montgomerie) was like that."

Harrington went on: "With guys like him wanting to play less, it is clear that events will struggle to get the top players. So it's obviously a huge boost to our national open that the current World No 1 happens to be Irish. And that so many other Irish players are strong right now."

As for the future of the tournament, Redmond O'Donoghue, chairman of Fáilte Ireland which is pumping €1.5 million into next year's event, takes a decidedly positive view. "Thanks to the inspiration of Pádraig Harrington, Ireland is to golf what New Zealand is to rugby," he said last week. "Which is why you have to have an Irish Open. And if it takes the government to make that happen, so be it. It's a lot of money at a difficult time, but everybody sees the benefit of it. It makes good business sense."

From his perspective, George O'Grady admitted it would be "irresponsible of the European Tour to let the Irish Open go down". And he sees government involvement here as being critical to its future, which explains a meeting with the Taoiseach last Tuesday and regular talks with officials in Northern Ireland.

"I don't think the North would want it every other year," said the tour's chief executive. "Either way, when we return there, it will be because the Taoiseach sees one Ireland when it comes to golf." And what of the prospect of a title-sponsor? "Money is not everything on this one," he replied. "This is not a property we feel we have to give away. Our long-term partner is Fáilte Ireland and the government of the south."

Original plans to stage the event on the O'Meara Course at Carton House had to be shelved when it became apparent that the various changes necessary for such a move couldn't be completed on time. So it goes back to the Montgomerie, where Stephen Dodd won a play-off in 2005 and Thomas Bjorn captured the title a year later.

As a bonus for spectators, a specially-priced "Irish Double" ticket at €50 will be available for Saturday, June 29, covering the third round of the Irish Open and Irish Derby Day at The Curragh.

Meanwhile, Harrington, whose contract to play Wilson Staff clubs on both sides of the Atlantic will be extended in a multi-year deal starting on January 1, seemed more than happy to talk further about a player he got to know for the first time in January 2008.

"At the moment, Rory's a young man, playing like he really enjoys it. He's excited; experiencing the novelty factor; all that sort of thing.

"And in the longer term, he'll have to watch out for injuries, just like the rest of us. But a real threat to his golfing career is that he'll get bored. He's wise to reduce his schedule if it means that every event he turns up for feels like it's precious. But if he's turning up and it doesn't feel precious . . . "

Can he remain as warm and approachable? "I think he can," replied one of the game's most admired champions. "Every time you meet him, he keeps exceeding your expectations, over and over. You're waiting for him to act like he's World No 1. You're waiting for him to change and he doesn't. Except maybe to become even better as a person."

And what continues to shape the Harrington image? "You try your best, knowing you will never please everybody," he said. "And you realise certain things aren't as important as you once thought they were. Then, if you can look yourself in the mirror in the morning, that's all you need to be able to do."

Seems like a pretty good approach, especially for this time of year.

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