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Irish Open Still a Grand Spectacle

Modest prize money does not matter writes Dermot Gilleece

Posted Jun 26, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

darren clarke

It’s unlikely that the relatively modest prize fund of €2 million for this year’s Irish Open is going to result in serious hardship for the leading participants on the Montgomerie Course at Carton House this week. 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 Royal Dublin.


Indeed if we go back a further two years to the previous time the US Open was played at Merion, the situation was more modest still.  Yet those were supposed to be glory days for the blue riband of Irish golf.


In 1981 at Portmarnock, Sam Torrance captured the title from a field which included David Graham who had become US Open champion at Merion, two months previously.  Isao Aoki, Greg Norman, Mark McNulty and Sandy Lyle also played in both events and quite a fuss was made in Dublin over the presence of Tom Weiskopf who had captured the Open Championship at Troon, eight years previously.


More recently, prior to the financial crash of 2008, tales of soaring house prices dominated 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 since the £100,000 fund of 1981. During the same period, the average yearly industrial wage in Ireland 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 was felt necessary to maintain the status of the Irish Open in recessionary times 30 years ago, relatively handsome appearance fees of €12,500 and €25,000 each were paid to a small group of players.  And on top of cash, the deal involved free accommodation for a player and his wife and free flights with the help of Aer Lingus.  Carrolls also spent heavily on promoting the tournament in an extended build-up from the start of every year.


Now, in the persons of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke, the Major-winning stars are home grown.  And without appearance fees, this week’s event will have final-day competitors from the recent Merion field in Jamie Donaldson, Paul Lawrie, Paul Casey, David Howell and Simon Khan. All of which is a reflection of the very significant growth in the quality of European golf over the last 30 years.


This will be the 39th staging of the Irish Open since it was revived by Carrolls at Woodbrook in 1975 when Christy O’Connor Jnr emerged victorious.  And when he captured the Open Championship in 2011, Darren Clarke became the 38th Major champion to have competed in it since that revival.


His predecessors included golfing giants such as Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros, Gary Player, Billy Casper, Nick Faldo and Raymond Floyd.  And in an earlier incarnation, the championship was graced by a native of Portrush who blazed the trail at Hoylake in 1947 for four Irishman to finally follow, some decades later.  In fact having won the original of the species at Portmarnock in 1946, Fred Daly teed it up on three occasions in the revived Irish Open in 1975, 1977 and 1978.                


As to the prospect of getting another title sponsor, Harrington said: “These are obviously very difficult times, commercially, when you can no longer look to a company chairman simply with a liking for golf.  The only way you can justify sponsoring a golf tournament is through the marketing benefits derived from TV exposure 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.”


Meanwhile, financial inducements are still on offer to the game’s leading exponents in selected events, but the Irish Open is no longer among them.  All it has to offer is a fine golf course, guaranteed hospitality and a proud title.   


This has secured survival through difficult times, simply because home-grown talent has shown itself good enough to earn the sort of international status which once had to be imported, at considerable cost.


- Dermot Gilleece


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