Monday 23 October 2017

Scene set for Kerry to welcome tour sequel

The Killeen course has cast its spell on the entire golfing world, writes Dermot Gilleece

Looking out over the shimmering waters of Lough Leane in the cool of Friday evening, Robert Finnegan, chief executive of 3Mobile, felt moved to remark: "I'll bet you fellows have never had a media centre with a view like this."

When asked about the possibility of a return here next year, he gave the stock answer about beginning the reviewing process tomorrow. Yet there was the inescapable suspicion that Killarney had cast its spell.

"As a venue, Killarney has been a massive success," said David Probyn, tournament director from the European Tour. "The town has some of the best hotels and restaurants in the world and the overall package is giving us one of the best Irish Opens in the last five or six years.

"Take the attendance figures alone. Television has caused spectator numbers to drop dramatically these days. Even in an exceptional country like France, where crowds have been increasing recently, they wouldn't come anywhere close to Thursday's attendance here (17,812). And on average, you would be looking at figures of 7,000 to 8,000 on the Continent for the Thursday of a national open.

"I know that Fáilte Ireland have had an extremely positive response so far," he continued. "Internet reaction from across the Atlantic to television images has been exceptional, with people wanting to know 'Where is this fantastic place?'.

"Naturally, we in the European Tour are conscious of keeping sponsors involved. So, the reaction has to be great for them in making their investment worthwhile. And it's clearly an important area for the title sponsors, 3. I imagine they will have loved to see the crowds we've had."

Indeed they have. Finnegan made a point of emphasising that Thursday's patrons were cash customers, unlike the situation on opening day at Baltray last year when admission was free.

But what of the 7,161-yard course, which has been perceived as vulnerable to the skills of the modern player? Again, Probyn was upbeat. "If you accept that Ross Fisher's 61 on Friday was exceptional, I believe the course has stood up very well, particularly when you consider the rough was effectively burnt away in May and June," he said.

"Though the wind got up to over 30mph this afternoon, we've had an Irish Open without a breath of wind for the first two days, the rough is virtually non-existent, so guys have had perfect golfing conditions. Yet barring one exceptional round, we've had scoring you would normally see on 7,400-yard courses.

"What I really love about this place is that while there are lots of birdie holes out there, you've got to work the golf ball a bit more than guys are usually called upon to do. And if it had been drier and with winds of 10 to 15 miles per hour, it would have been an ever sterner test."

There is a feeling in Fáilte Ireland that Killarney needs to be re-branded internationally as a major tourist destination. "We need to educate the current generation who might not be as familiar with its legendary appeal as their parents are," said director of golf, Michelle McGreevy. "We're certainly delighted at the coverage the tournament is getting at home and abroad. And the turnout of spectators has been brilliant."

Locals are understandably proud of what has been achieved so far. "In these difficult times, it has been hugely important to the town," said Senator Paul Coghlan, a past captain and president of the host club. "And the town has embraced it, building the Summerfest around the tournament and creating a tremendous holiday atmosphere to everybody's benefit.

"But we need to concentrate more on bringing British visitors back to Killarney in meaningful numbers. The fact is that they were once the mainstay of tourism in this area. Meanwhile, as somebody who was involved when the Irish Open was last staged here in 1991 and 1992, I believe everybody involved deserves to be congratulated for organisation that has been brought to a new level. We deserve to have it back here."

If the tournament were to return to Killarney next year, what would be top of Probyn's wish list for the course? Interestingly, he made no mention of increased length, despite the absence of any meaningful attempt at limiting the golf ball.

"I would hope we could develop more of a challenge if you happened to miss the fairway," he replied. "And accepting that some of the holes are shorter than you would typically see, it would be great to get the greens firmer. Weather conditions throughout Europe make this an ongoing challenge, but I'm always wanting firmer greens. If a player happens to be wayward and loses control out of the rough, he's facing a serious test hitting to firm greens. Otherwise, the Killeen Course is fine as far as I'm concerned."

From its launch in 1893, Killarney GC always appeared to have an eye on promoting tourism. For instance, an ambitious early undertaking was an exhibition match in 1903 between Scotland's Sandy Herd and the great Harry Vardon. And they weren't slow to capitalise on Bing Crosby's assessment of the Mahony's Point course as "a genuine test in a lovely environment".

The fact is that, as a rarity, this Irish Open is being staged in a place where the entire community are tourist-orientated. They recognise it as the lifeblood of the town. And as a consequence of pulling out all the stops, they seem to be ensuring a bright future for what has often been a troubled tournament.

Sunday Independent

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