Survival the only game in town
The Irish Open is still seeking a sponsor but at least our top golfers are playing their part, says Dermot Gilleece
It's unlikely that the 50 per cent reduction to €1.5m in this year's Irish Open prize fund is going to result in serious hardship for the participants at Killarney later this month. Even in the absence of a title sponsor, they will be doing considerably better than their brethren from 30 years ago, when Carrolls were pushing out the boat at Portmarnock.
And judging from the efforts of Pádraig Harrington, things could be back on track for the 2012 staging. When I asked him last week if he had been proactive in helping the European Tour find a new sponsor, Harrington replied that he had. "I actually had a conversation with somebody about it (sponsorship) two weeks ago, mainly because I believe that some companies don't realise the value of the Irish Open," he said.
He could have included the players in that particular observation. In 1981, when Sam Torrance captured the title from a field which included reigning US Open champion, David Graham, along with other luminaries such as Tom Weiskopf, Isao Aoki, Greg Norman and Tony Jacklin, the prize fund was IR£100,000 punts or €127,000, of which the Scot received the equivalent of €21,000.
More recently, prior to the financial turmoil of 2008, tales of soaring house prices appeared to dominate our lives. The seeming lunacy of the property market acquired some perspective, however, when compared to tournament golf. In the Irish Open, for instance, the prize fund increased by a factor of almost 24 between 1981 and last year.
During the same period, the average yearly industrial wage in this country went from €7,126 to €31,350 -- a factor of only 4.4. And the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased by an even more modest 203.3 per cent.
To assemble the sort of field which he felt was necessary to maintain the status of the Irish Open in recessionary times 30 years ago, tournament director Pat Heneghan saw fit to pay appearance fees to two, three or four top-name players who received between €12,500 and €25,000 each. And apart from cash, the deal involved free accommodation for a player and his wife and free flights with the help of Aer Lingus.
"We took the view that unless you had two or three players from the top 10 in the world, you were dead," he said. "While splashing out the equivalent of more than half the prize fund in appearance fees, we also spent heavily on promoting the tournament in an extended build-up from the start of every year."
Now the stars are home-grown. With Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell filling what Heneghan considered to be a world top 10 requirement, there is the significant bonus of the 2007 champion, Harrington, with three Major titles to his credit. The Dubliner's admirable appetite for the event was reflected in a stirring charge which brought him runner-up position to Ross Fisher on the Killeen Course last year.
This will be the 37th staging of the Irish Open since it was revived by Carrolls at Woodbrook in 1975, when Christy O'Connor Jnr emerged victorious. And McIlroy will become the 37th Major champion to have competed in it since that revival. While these included giants of the game in Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros, Gary Player, Billy Casper, Nick Faldo and Raymond Floyd, there was also the Portrush native who blazed the trail at Hoylake in 1947 for three Irishman to finally follow, some decades later.
Fred Daly teed it up on three occasions in the revived Irish Open in 1975, 1977 and 1978, having won the original of the species at Portmarnock in 1946.
Coming hot on the heels of his good friend McDowell, McIlroy will be the eighth reigning US Open champion to contest the Irish Open. As early as 1977, the others were set a forbidding standard by Hubert Green whose victory at Portmarnock came two months after his dramatic win at Southern Hills, where he completed the final holes aware of the threat from an assassin's bullet.
The other reigning US Open champions and their Irish Open performances were: David Graham (1981, T11th), Curtis Strange (1988, T17th), Payne Stewart (1991, T16th), Ernie Els (1994, T8th), Michael Campbell (2006, T12th), and McDowell (2010, T31st).
Meanwhile, common sense would suggest that year on year increases in prize funds were unsustainable, even in good times. So, during the worst recession in living memory, we shouldn't be surprised at the difficulties being encountered in getting a title-sponsor to replace 3Mobile, which opted out of the Irish Open after being heavily supportive in 2009 and 2010.
"If this was 2007, I think you would find another sponsor, but it's not," said Harrington. "We're finding it difficult to get another sponsor going forward. Gone are the days when a CEO threw some money into a golf event just because he liked the game. Now, everything has to be justified and the only way you can justify sponsoring a golf tournament is through the marketing benefits you get from it being shown on TV all around the world.
"This would suggest that it has to be either an Irish company which trades internationally, or an international company with an Irish base, looking for that coverage. It's a great event which gets terrific coverage in the US and around the world and the challenge is to find a sponsor who will value that coverage."
George O'Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, is decidedly upbeat about the event not only surviving, but prospering in the years ahead. "With Irish players so prominent on the world stage, it's unthinkable not to have an Irish Open," he said. "There is a lot of sponsor interest, though not in time to make it work this year. We would rather not take a one-year deal. We're looking for a long-term sponsor and I think we will get it."
During the 1990 US Masters, when reigning British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia revealed he would be playing in the Irish Open later that year, his reason was disarmingly simple. "They offered me a neat deal," he said. And he proceeded to earn his crust in a share of second place behind Jose Maria Olazabal at Portmarnock.
Those sort of inducements are still on offer to the game's leading exponents in selected events, but the Irish Open is no longer among them. Nor is it likely to be for the foreseeable future.
With companies under so much financial pressure these days, it would be fanciful to imagine that we can miraculously find an Irish Open benefactor who happens to have generously deep pockets. Simple survival seems a far more reasonable aspiration. That, and the hope that our players can continue to earn the sort of international status which once had to be imported, at considerable cost.
Sunday Indo Sport