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Dermot Gilleece's Blog : The Irish Open

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece takes a look at the history of the Irish open and John Daly's appearance this year

Posted May 11, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

john daly

               It is easy to forget that the success of the European Tour during the formative decades of the eighties and early nineties was built largely on appearance fees for a select group of players.  Seve Ballesteros was widely regarded as having no peer when it came to putting bums on seats.  And tournament organisers were happy to acknowledge this.  As Joe Flanagan, the tournament director of the Carrolls Irish Open once told me: "If you had Seve, you felt you had the makings of a successful tournament."

               I remember Ed Sneed telling me about coming to Portmarnock for the 1979 Irish Open with his friend, John Mahaffey, and how his course record-equalling final round of 65 for second place was later matched by the winner, Mark James.

               It struck me that Mahaffey had captured the USPGA Championship at Oakmont the previous year after a play-off with Jerry Pate and Tom Watson, while Sneed, earlier in 1979, had come within a whisker of winning the US Masters.  In fact after finishing with bogeys at the last three holes, he eventually lost a play-off to Fuzzy Zoeller.  This was the sort of quality we had come to expect in the Irish Open after Carrolls re-launched it at Woodbrook in 1975.

               Americans were decidedly thin on the ground, however, when  Carrolls first ventured into major golf sponsorship with the £5,555 Sweet Afton Tournament at Woodbrook in 1963.  Though it was staged only two weeks after the Open Championship at Royal Lytham, such luminaries as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were already looking towards the USPGA Championship.
               Even the champion at Lytham, New Zealand's Bob Charles decided to follow the dollar trail rather than compete in Ireland.  Still, Carrolls tournaments thrived, even in the absence of overseas stars.  Instead of wondrous stories about the exploits of Nicklaus and Palmer, the Irish public were more than happy to settle for the heart-stopping exploits of O'Connor, as in his eagle-birdie-eagle finish at Royal Dublin in 1966.

               But that was before golf's appeal was dramatically broadened by television.  Sparked by Tony Jacklin's triumph in the 1970 US Open at Hazeltine, the BBC increased its coverage of American golf with the result that its major tournaments and leading exponents gradually became more familiar to enthusiasts on this side of the pond.  And Carrolls were quick to recognise this development.  So it was that when Christy O'Connor Jnr captured the revived Irish Open in 1975, Tom Watson, who had won the Open at Carnoustie only a month previously, was in the field, along with compatriots J C Snead and Bob Gilder.

              Then came an abiding memory from Portmarnock the following year when a shy, retiring young American by the name of Ben Crenshaw was a guest at a Failte Ireland pre-tournament reception.  And though it gave him much grief on his way to victory, the 24-year-old would later describe Portmarnock's short 15th as quite simply "the best par three I have ever played."

              In 1977, we had Hubert Green donning the mantle of Irish Open champion and he was joined in the field by runner-up Crenshaw, and with fellow Americans David Edwards and Bob Murphy. As it happened, Green had secured a double which remains unique to the event, insofar as he added the Irish Open title to his US Open triumph at Southern Hills two months previously.

              From then on, Americans came streaming in.  There were Tom Weiskopf, Lanny Wadkins, Gaylord Burrows and Green in 1978, and Sneed, Mark McCumber, Mahaffey, Al Geiberger, Jerry Pate and Orville Moody a year later. Then came Hale Irwin and Bill Rogers in 1980, to be followed Tom Kite, David Ogrin and Bobby Clampett in 1982.

              Even when the tournament moved to Royal Dublin in 1983, the flow showed no signs of abating, with Raymond Floyd, Curtis Strange, Corey Pavin, Andrew Magee, John Jacobs, Lee Trevino, Bruce Zamriski and Gary Hallberg, gracing the Dollymount links.  Later on, there would be appearances by Mark O'Meara, Deane Beman, Mark Calcavecchia and Strange at Portmarnock; Payne Stewart at Killarney and John Daly at Mount Juliet and Druids Glen.  But the golden age had passed.  The dominance which Crenshaw and Green achieved in 1976 and 1977 was never repeated.

              Carrolls recognised the changing face of golf and they had departed the sponsorship scene by the time young talented European exponents arrived to follow the path carved so brilliantly by players such as Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer. 

              Now, with 3Mobile as new sponsors, Daly is flying the American flag at Baltray this week, but without the appearance money he had received in previous challenges in the event during the nineties.  That was when the Tour imposed a ban on the practice, because it was seen to be damaging prize funds.  More recently, however, they appear to have had a change of heart, prompted by the increasing appeal of the US Tour to their top players.               

               So we have George O'Grady, the Tour's chief executive, saying he no longer has as any objection to appearance fees, provided, as a quid pro quo, that players make a commercial contribution to the tournament.  And he is aware that the Tour rule limiting such fees to a quarter of a tournament's prize fund is being flouted.  "I can't sit here, look you in the eyes and tell you that the rule is applied when Tiger Woods plays in one of our tournaments," he admitted.  "Nobody complains to me about it and I don't ask.  Anyway, the tournaments which have him are normally at the top end of the prize-money scale."

- Dermot Gilleece

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