Friday 15 December 2017

Solheim promise brings age of plenty to an end

Irish golf can no longer piggyback on the success of hosting major events, writes Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

W ith the staging of the Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle next September, Ireland's role as a big-spending host to major international sporting events will be at an end, at least for the foreseeable future. Most of the money has gone on golf which, ironically, is the sport most affected by the economic downturn.

From a time when liberal amounts of Government cash were available for the promotion of tourism through sport, we passed up the 2014 World Equestrian Games, to the benefit of the French region of Normandy. And even if we were interested, a future Ryder Cup would be way beyond our means. The first staging of the Solheim Cup here comes at a cost of about €8m, the vast bulk of which will be funded by the State. Yet it should represent a sound investment, based on estimates of €35m accruing to the Irish economy.

Particularly revealing is the strength we once projected in the international marketplace, largely through the expertise of Pádraig ó hUiginn. It has been widely acknowledged that the former civil service mandarin was instrumental in bringing the Ryder Cup to this country in 2006, with considerable financial support from Dr Michael Smurfit. Now, he claims to have played a similar role with regard to the Solheim Cup. When the Ryder Cup was set fair for The K Club in 2006, ó hUiginn's logical follow-up was to target the biggest event in the women's professional game. With that in mind, he brought John Solheim and his family to Killarney and Ballybunion in 2003.

"Solheim thought Killarney was perfect for the event, with its hotels and airport," said ó hUiginn. "As a bonus, there was the fact that the Curtis Cup had a very successful staging there in 1996. When the LGU approached the Government for financial help for that particular staging, I was in the Department of the Taoiseach and managed to find about £30,000 for them."

During Solheim Cup consultations, the Irish Ladies Open was among several tournaments being supported by Fáilte Ireland. Not unreasonably, ó hUiginn took the view that in a bidding competition, the Ladies European Tour (LET) would bear this in mind when making their final decision.

So it came as a shock when, because of a successful staging in Barseback, Malmo, in 2003, they decided to bring it back to Sweden in 2007, this time to Halmstadt in a deal reportedly worth stg£7m. In this context, it remained very much a local event which had generated only €7m for the Malmo region in 2003. ó hUiginn set his sights considerably higher.

"I protested very strongly to the LET," he said. "'Do you realise what you're doing?' I told them. 'When talking to us, you're talking to a sovereign government. You can't do this kind of thing'. We were done out of it by what I perceived as trickery. I don't believe the Solheim family had anything to do with it, given their enthusiasm for Killarney. And I knew privately that we had outbid Wales, the other candidates. The upshot was I told the LET that we didn't want to see them again until they learned better manners."

Then, matching words with action, ó hUiginn summarily pulled the plug on the Ladies Irish Open. The official line from the LET explaining its absence from the 2004 schedule was that Fáilte Ireland "were unable to commit to funding" the tournament. But money wasn't the problem.

Two things then happened to change the entire landscape. In a restructured LET, Alexandra Armas came in as executive director in August 2005. And Roddy Carr, as a spokesman for Killeen Castle, approached ó hUiginn about putting a new bid in place.

"I was led to believe that the LET were anxious to make amends if they got the right offer, but they didn't seem to know what to do," said ó hUiginn. "The upshot was that I went into John O'Donoghue (then minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism) with a draft letter indicating that we felt we deserved the Solheim Cup next time around (2011), in view of past history in the matter."

The letter also informed the LET: "I am prepared to offer you €1m per year for five years, half towards reinstating the Irish Ladies Open and the other half towards the Solheim Cup." ó hUiginn added: "The Minister signed that letter, sent it out and we got the Solheim Cup."

In the autumn of 2006, only a matter of weeks after a successful staging of the Ryder Cup, it was

announced that Ireland had landed the 2011 Solheim Cup with five years of a revived Irish Ladies Open, starting in 2008. A year later, AIB came on board as sponsors of both to the tune of €2.5m. Further, subsidiary sponsorship has brought the total deal to €8m.

Regarding the Ryder Cup, ó hUiginn recalled giving this terse message to O'Donoghue's ministerial predecessor: "I said to Jim McDaid, 'offer him (Ken Schofield of the European Tour) £7.5m and you'll get the Ryder Cup'. And he did. And we got it."

Among other things, ó hUiginn negotiated a deal with finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, whereby €5m per year was set aside for the promotion of tourism through sport. This arrangement lasted 10 years. As a consequence, the country supported no fewer than five international golf tournaments at one stage.

Now we are about to witness the last gasps of a free-spending environment characterised by one of the country's leading developers sending taxis to collect invitees to his annual corporate golf event. One more Irish Ladies Open next year and the last big deal will have been honoured.

Is there a tangible, long-term dividend? Obviously time will tell. But it is hardly an encouraging thought that certain proprietary venues, which staged some of the country's biggest golf events, are currently battling for survival.

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