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Irish Open Preview

Despite the Economy, the Irish Open is in a healthy state

Posted Jul 27, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece


With Irish companies under so much financial pressure these days, it would be fanciful to imagine we could miraculously find an Irish Open benefactor who happens to have generously deep pockets.  Simple survival seems a far more reasonable aspiration in a country facing enormous debts.  Which makes this week’s staging of the Irish Open at Killarney all the more special.
When the event was revived by the Carrolls tobacco company in 1975, their tournament director, Pat Heneghan, felt it necessary to pay  appearance fees to two, three or four top-name players who received between £10,000 and €20,000 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 newly-crowned Open champion, Darren Clarke and the 2007 Irish Open champion, Padraig Harrington, with three major titles to his credit.  Indeed Harrington’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.  

It is also worth noting that Clarke becomes the 38th Major champion to have competed in it since that revival, when Tom Watson competed at Woodbrook, fresh from his Open triumph at Carnoustie. While Major winners 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 is 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), 1991 Payne Stewart (1991, T16th), Ernie Els (1994, T8th), Michael Campbell (2006, T12th), McDowell (2010, T31st).  

Meanwhile, commonsense 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.”

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 it is likely to be for the foreseeable future. But it’s unlikely that the 50 per cent reduction to €1.5 million in this year’s prize fund, is going to result in serious hardship for this week’s participants. 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.

- Dermot Gilleece

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