THE Irish Open has come out of the desert. The unveiling of its first title-sponsor since 2010, Dubai Duty Free, is yet another strong signal of the event’s upsurge since Rory McIlroy became its patron.
McIlroy’s strong personal links with Dubai were central to the forging of this new multi-million euro sponsorship deal, which initially is on the basis of a one year contract, May’s bumper event at Royal County Down, though, upon review, it’s expected to continue for several years.
There will be an immediate increase in the tournament’s prize fund, European Tour Chief Executive George O’Grady confirmed at the official unveiling of the sponsorship at Royal Co Down Golf Club yesterday, which he described as “a joyous occasion.”
Though O’Grady was not in a position to reveal the exact amount, insiders suggest it’s likely to rise by 25 per cent to €2.5 million, or roughly half of the overall sponsorship contract.
Rory McIlroy and his Foundation have massive plans for the Irish Open, hoping to grow it to a $5 million event in 2019, when, ideally, it will be played, probably on a links course in the Republic, the week before that July’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
In conjunction with the Scottish Open, the Irish will be part of a long-envisaged ‘Links Swing’ which, in conjunction with The Open, will bring the world’s finest golfers to Europe for an extended period.
Dubai Duty Free, built over the past 32 years by Ballinasloe native Colm McLoughlin and his award-winning team into the world’s biggest airport retail operation with a turnover of $1.9 billion last year.
The company already sponsors the Irish Derby and also is prominent in tennis, darts and, of course, golf, with a strong involvement in the Dubai Desert Classic.
McLoughlin initially went to Dubai as head of a 10-strong party from Aer Rianta Shannon Duty Free in 1983. He has built a strong relationship with golf and Irish golfers through the Desert Classic, leading to today’s appointment of Des Smyth as Golf Ambassador for this year’s Irish Open.
It’s usual for Middle Eastern business to agree an initial one-year arrangement and, once the relationship has been established, then discuss contracts in the longer term.
In his extensive dealings with The Emirates, O’Grady has discovered: “they have long term relationships and short term contracts. Dubai Duty Free came into the Desert Classic on a one year contract 26 years ago and they are still there now.”
Dubai Duty Free also own the Irish Village in the UAE and a new hotel in the Emirate, The Creekside, which is managed by McIlroy’s first major sponsor, Jumeirah.
“I’ve got really strong connections with Dubai and I’m so happy that my friends in Dubai Duty Free have come in to sponsor the Irish Open,” said McIlroy on a video link from the US.“What’s already going to be a fantastic week is now going to be even better.”
McIlroy has already persuaded a coterie of his friends on the PGA Tour, stars like Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler, to play the Irish Open from May 28-31.
Last Sunday’s Cadillac Championship winner Dustin Johnson also is seriously considering his return to Royal Co Down, where he featured with Fowler on the US Walker Cup team that beat a McIlroy-led Great Britain and Ireland in 2007.