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Dermot Gilleece's Blog : The revival of the Irish Ladies Open

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the return of Laura Davies and the Ladies Irish Open

Posted Jun 10, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

Laura Davies

                  With glamorous Australian, Jan Stephenson, wrapped in mauve winter woollies against the wind and rain of October days at Clandeboye, the 1984 staging of the Smirnoff Irish Ladies Open seemed like another world.  As if the presence of star players from America's LPGA Tour wasn't sufficiently eyebrow-raising, this happened to be the second wealthiest tournament on what was then the WPGA Tour, being surpassed only by the Ladies British Open.

                 The prize fund of £100,000 was only marginally smaller than the overall figure the men had played for in the Carrolls Irish Open at Royal Dublin two months previously.  Indeed Bernhard Langer's winning cheque of £18,330 was actually smaller than the £22,500 which American veteran, Kathy Whitworth, collected for her victory at Clandeboye where Stephenson, incidentally, earned a relatively modest £3,061 for a share of ninth place.

                 Amazingly, it was Whitworth's 87th career win and she achieved it with rounds of 70,74,69,72 for an aggregate of 285, to finish two strokes clear of fellow Americans Becky Pearson and Pat Bradley in a tied for second.  Yet despite the presence of other leading US players of the time, such as Donna Caponi and Betsy King, attendances over the four days of the tournament were pitifully sparse.  In these circumstances, it was difficult to imagine a future for such events in this country and it came as no surprise when the tournament actually failed to survive.

                 The revival and recent success of the Irish Ladies Open, which will be played at Portmarnock Links on June 26th to 28th, owes much to Laura Davies, who is making a comeback to the event this year.  It was back in the autumn of 1993, that Davies appeared in the Ford Ladies Challenge, a modest, one-day event staged at Woodbrook.  And making good on a promise on that occasion, she returned in July the following year, when the national event was revived through the support of Failte Ireland at St Margaret's.

                 As it happened, Davies followed her success in the Ford event by winning that one too.  And she retained the title with a record-breaking performance at the same venue in 1995.  Then, by way of keeping things in the same golfing family, her Solheim Cup foursomes partner, Alison Nicholas, captured the Irish Open at the first attempt in 1996, at City West.  It seemed that nothing could halt the increasing popularity of a tournament which was declared an unqualified success.

                So what went wrong?  Why did it disappear off the European schedule after two Killarney stagings in 2002 and 2003, when Iben Tinning's triumph on the Lackabane course was followed by yet another victory from Sweden's Sophie Gustafson on Mahony's Point?

                 Ironically, it had to do with the Solheim Cup.  With the apparent support of the Solheim family, Failte Ireland put a substantial offer on the table for a 2007 staging at Killarney, which had successfully played host to the Curtis Cup in 1996.  But after the Solheim family had approved of the venue on a visit to Co Kerry, Irish officials were later shocked to learn that the bid had failed.  Unknown to the Irish, the LET had done a reported £Stg7 million deal to keep the biennial event in Sweden, where it was staged at Halmstad.

                 The official line from the LET regarding the absence of the Irish tournament from their 2004 schedule, was that Failte Ireland "were unable to commit to funding" the tournament.  But money wasn't the problem.  Rather was it a case of Irish officials being extremely angry regarding arrangements for the Solheim Cup.  So the Irish Ladies Open became a dead duck, until something was offered in return.

                 On the morning of Friday, September 22th, 2006, when the opening shots were being hit in the Ryder Cup at The K Club, Irish Government Minister, John O'Donoghue, headed for a Dublin Airport hotel and a meeting with LET Chief Executive, Alexandra Armas, and her colleagues.  Three months later, those discussions culminated in a deal which will bring the Solheim Cup to Killeen Castle in 2011, when Michelle Wie could well be making her first European appearance in the event.  The LET had delivered, and as part of the announcement, it came as no surprise that agreement had also been reached to revive the Ladies Irish Open with a commitment to five stagings, starting in 2008.

                That airport meeting with O'Donoghue had delivered a handsome dividend.  So, in their own way, had those far-off days of the mauve-clad Jan Stephenson at Clandeboye.  But no player did more than Laura Davies to breathe new life into ladies' professional golf in Ireland.  Which is why she can be certain of a hearty welcome, later this month.

- Dermot Gilleece

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