Imagine Golf Blogs

The Irish Open Conundrum

How to stage the troubled but resillient competition

Posted Jul 02, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

jamie donaldson

Events of last weekend at Royal Portrush have guaranteed that the Irish Open will never be the same again.  It has changed irreversibly both in terms of future venues and the nature of its financial support.

Record cumulative attendances of 112,280 over the four days of the tournament and 130,785 for whole week, tell their own tale.  Through their extraordinary enthusiasm in the most hostile weather imaginable, fans at Portrush effectively demanded that the tournament should return there as soon as is practicable.

The importance of that alone, is emphasised by the recent history of a championship which had not previously been north of the Irish border since 1953.  In this context, it may be no harm to have a closer look as the development of the Irish Open over the decades.

When launched in 1927 at Portmarnock, it was won by the great George Duncan from Henry Cotton in an entry of 126.  More significantly, the event was run under the auspices of the Golfing Union of Ireland, simply because the Irish professional game back then wasn’t sufficiently well organised to handle such an undertaking.  And because the GUI did not distinguish between north and south in administering men’s amateur golf on the island, they were extremely even-handed when choosing venues.  

For instance, the second staging was at Royal Co Down.  Then it went back to Portmarnock before heading north once more, this time for its first staging at Royal Portrush.  And from then until the Belvoir Park staging of 1953, it went north and south of the border on alternate years, except, of course during World War II when competition was suspended.

Given its amateur priority, the GUI were always under pressure to find the necessary money for a worthwhile prize fund.  Eventually, they were forced to discontinue the event which went off the calendar from 1953 until it was revived under the Carrolls banner at Woodbrook in 1975.  They were followed as sponsors by Murphys in 1993, then by Nissan a decade later and finally, by 3Mobile in 2009 and 2010.

Since all of those sponsors were based and had their marketing operations in the Republic of Ireland, they had no commercial reason to stage the event north of the border.  And with Northern Ireland being ripped apart by civil strife during the so-called Troubles, such a move became totally unthinkable.
 
Now, happily, we live in peaceful times.  In the context of staging the Irish Open, however, the key element to the Portrush staging was a commitment of £2 million from the Northern Ireland government, following on similar support by the Republic’s government for the Killarney staging of 2011, after the title sponsor pulled out.

And George O’Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, has indicated that the future of the event rests with the governments north and south.  In fact only by being offered “a huge cheque” would he be interested in returning to a title sponsor.

As it happens, the championship is already fixed for Carton House next year.  And wearing his business hat, O’Grady seems more than happy with the current, financial arrangement. “I think the Irish Open, is a great title,” he said.  “And I like the Taoiseach’s (Republic prime minister) idea that the tournament be used to market Ireland as an entity, not to have south competing with north.  As he put it ‘when overseas golfers plan visits here, they think simply of great Irish courses, not where they’re located.’”

Obviously, details of any future rotation have yet to be worked out.  Respective tourism resources, which are heavily weighted in favour of the south, would seem to rule against a return to the alternate-year arrangement of the tournament’s early history.  Instead, we may see three-year cycles in which two stagings in the south will be balanced by one in the north.

One thing is certain: a new beginning was made last weekend, when there was inescapable irony in the fact that a little-known Welshman, Jamie Donaldson, consigned local Major heroes, Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, to supporting roles.

While Donaldson’s maiden win was clearly a splendid achievement, however, one suspects that the event will be remembered more through the passing years, as a watershed in the ongoing history of a sometimes troubled but clearly resilient championship.

- Dermot Gilleece

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