Tuesday 20 February 2018

Rosses Point could fit Open bill in momentous year for Irish golf

Paul McGinley. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul McGinley. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

With next year's Open Championship promising to deliver the biggest ­summer in the history of Irish golf, the west is very much awake to a crucial, unresolved issue. In fact a bid is currently being prepared to bring the 2019 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open to Co Sligo GC as part of their 125th anniversary celebrations.

Apart from the absence of a ­staging west of the Shannon, there is still no precedent to guide us. On the only previous occasion the Open Championship moved from mainland Britain to Royal Portrush in 1951, lack of finance meant there was no Irish Open that year, ­making this the first ever big double.

On the foot of a decision already in place to bring this year's event to ­Ballyliffin, European Tour officials visited Rosses Point last summer with a future staging in mind. I understand they ­received a very positive response from local representatives, anxious to promote an area much loved as Yeats country.

There was talk of a cash inducement in the region of €300,000 and the availability of 4,500 hotel beds within a 35-mile radius. Co Sligo's bid also coincides with an upgrading of their Harry Colt links, spearheaded by Pat Ruddy, commander in chief of The European Club.

All of which comes against the background of last week's announcement that Paul McGinley is set to host the Irish Open for one year, after Rory McIlroy has completed four years at the helm, next July. And McGinley asserted: "From discussions I've had with some of the players and Keith Pelley of the European Tour, a links is imperative for 2019."

He went on to suggest the possibility, albeit a remote one, that as a once-off, Aberdeen Asset Management could be persuaded to sacrifice to Ireland their plum Scottish Open date on the week prior to the Open. I have since heard from another source, however, that such a move is simply not a runner.

Though talk of a significant links event in the Republic throws the focus on Portmarnock GC, they have no plans to confront their single-gender ­membership issue. Which means they remain effectively blacklisted by the ­European Tour, who are following the Royal and Ancient's lead in such matters.

This seems a great pity, given the high esteem in which the North Dublin links is held internationally. I remember when Pat Heneghan of Carrolls asked in 1975 how their revival of the Irish Open could be improved upon, he was told: "Move it to Portmarnock." Which they did. And Gerard O'Toole of Nissan agreed to ­sponsor the event in 2003, only on ­condition that it be held at Portmarnock.

As it happens, Royal Dublin is also ruled out. Unlike Portmarnock, whose status as a "gentlemen's" club has been endorsed by the Supreme Court, Royal Dublin is a club of "ordinary members" who have simply chosen to remain exclusively male. Which amounts to the same thing where the Irish Open is concerned.

Either way, what's the problem with going to a links outside Dublin? Basically, this depends on the value the organisers place on attendance figures. It clearly wasn't a concern when opting for Ballyliffin, largely because of a substantial financial sweetener from the host club.

Nor did it seem to matter at Portstewart last July. My information is that from a cost of roughly €10 million for that staging, gate receipts represented a relatively modest €1m or 10 per cent of the overall outlay. The remainder came from the Tour's various sponsorship deals.

Which would suggest that the structure of the Irish Open is now very different to what it was in 2000, when Murphy's took the championship to Ballybunion, the home club of managing director Pádraic Liston. On that occasion, the sponsors contributed an additional €500,000 on a once-off basis, so as to compensate for the host club's insistence on attendances being limited to an overall ceiling of 45,000.

A particularly interesting element of that staging was the enthusiasm of North Kerry's business community, who know a thing or two about tourism. Between them, they pledged over £30,000 (punts) to the organisers by way of emphasising the championship's value to the area.

There's a perception that Irish golf fans are loathe to travel, though patrons in the North gave the lie to that through record attendances in wretched weather at Royal Portrush in 2012. A tendency to hark back to the halcyon days of the 1980s at Portmarnock and Royal Dublin is to overlook the reality of the thousands of complimentary tickets which Carrolls distributed as a promotional device.

If Ballyliffin can make sense to the European Tour, so could Co Sligo, provided they present a comparable deal. And players would be in for a real treat at Rosses Point where, after a visit in 1961, the celebrated English scribe, Pat Ward-Thomas, wrote "I had heard tell of its beauty, of its savagery when great winds roared from the ocean . . ."

Meanwhile, the last significant pro tournament on that north-west frontier was the Carrolls Irish Match-play won by Eddie Polland in October 1974. It was also memorable for a course-record 67 by Christy O'Connor Snr, when qualifying was led by Christy Jnr, who wrought great deeds with a Golden Goose putter borrowed from legendary local professional, John McGonigle.

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