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Dermot Gilleece's Blog : Irish Open Venues

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the eternal Links problem for the Irish Open

Posted Mar 09, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

Irish Open

           Europe's leading tournament professionals would have us believe that they're delighted at the concept of links golf in events other than the Open Championship.  Which has to be viewed as good news for this year's 3 Mobile Irish Open, in that it is scheduled for the charming links terrain of Baltray on May 14th to 17th.

            We also keep hearing how important such a move is for Irish tourism.  Indeed even at this remove, there are those who still express regret at the fact that the 2006 Ryder Cup took place on the parkland terrain of The K Club, rather than on the majestic links of Portmarnock, the "logical" choice.

             It may be no harm at this stage to clear up this ongoing nonsense.  Yes, it is true that Ireland is fortunate in having some of the finest links terrain in the world.  But it is equally true that for different reasons, important professional events cannot be staged on any of the island's three leading links courses.

             Back in 2000, by way of marking the millennium, Murphy's decided as sponsors to stage the Irish Open at Ballybunion, which happened to be the birthplace of their managing director, Padraig Liston.  And despite some vociferous protests from a section of the Ballybunion membership, they did so, but at an additional cost of over €600,000.  This stemmed from the fact that attendances had to be limited to a maximum of 15,000 on any given day, for fear of damage to the delicate dune structure.

             Considerably tighter restrictions have applied at Royal Co Down, when it has played host to events such as the Senior British Open of the Walker Cup.

               Portmarnock, with its 350 acres, is ideally suited in terms of spectator space.  It has been the subject of much controversy in recent times, however, because of its "men-only" membership policy, despite having enjoyed considerable success in the law courts on the basis of the right to free association guaranteed under the Irish constitution.

             Against such a background, there was never the chance of the government pumping tax-payer's money into the Ryder Cup and the Irish Open there, for fear of protests from malcontents.  In fact it hasn't staged a professional event since the Irish Open in 2003 when Nissan, as title sponsors, had to run the gauntlet of women protesters, albeit in small numbers.

                And what of all these encouraging comments from leading professionals about links golf?  The fact is that when Murphy's went to Ballybunion nine years ago, Europe's top player at the time, Colin Montgomerie, didn't enter.  Despite being a past champion with victories in the event in 1996 and 1997 when it was staged at Druid's Glen.

              Meanwhile, the County Louth Club at Baltray showed they could accommodate the event, comfortably, when more than 23,000 attended the final day there in 2004, on the occasion of Brett Rumford's triumph.  But for the most part, Irish links venues are limited in what they can do.

             This should come as no surprise when we consider the huge sums of money which the Royal and Ancient have pumped into venues on the Open Championship rota.  A particular case in mind is Royal St George's at Sandwich, where the Open returned in 1981 after a lapse of 12 years.  Indeed it will be recalled that the event came back again only four years later, in 1985, so as to justify the R and A infrastructural investment.

             In terms of protecting delicate links terrain, the perfect venue is the Old Course at St. Andrews.  There, Open spectators are guided entirely around the perimeter of the course which measures a remarkably tight 83 acres.

                Of the 34 stagings of the Irish Open since its revival at Woodbrook in 1975, 18 have been on links terrain.  Significantly, 13 of those have been at Portmarnock.  Unquestionably the most suitable choice from an infrastructural standpoint, it will remain, sadly, a controversial option until all the legal wrangling over its membership status has been finally put to rest. 

- Dermot Gilleece

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