When you glance at the Irish Open honours board, the tournament’s recent slide into the golfing wilderness is puzzling.
O’Connor, Ballesteros, Faldo, Langer, Montgomerie, Garcia and Harrington – the role of honour is illustrious and endless.
Yet, for an event which always had the capacity to attract the game’s heavyweights, the last few years has seen its standing on the European Tour calendar fall behind other lucrative tournaments as the organisers toiled to entice sponsors on board.
The reduced purse and dwindling financial muscle of the sole professional golf tournament on these shores reflected the difficulties the sport was experiencing during the enduring period of economic hardship.
The loss of Nissan and then Three as title sponsors was the sign of the belt-tightening times with the winner’s share halved from €500,000 to just a quarter of a million.
In comparison, the Scottish Open, which is generally staged shortly after the Irish Open, presented Justin Rose with a cheque for €627,000 for winning at Royal Aberdeen last year.
In the space of three years, the Irish Open had fallen to the financial level of second-rate tour fixtures such as the Hassan Trophy in Morocco and the Scandinavian Masters. The organisers insisted it had been a good few years but they simply weren’t able to keep-up with the emerging, and highly lucrative, events in Asia and across the Atlantic.
It would be stretching it to say the Irish Open was on its last legs, far from it, but it was in desperate need of a kick-start after three years without a sponsor. So the intervention of World number one Rory McIlroy couldn’t have come at a better time.
It was announced last September that McIlroy’s charitable foundation, The Rory Foundation, would become the official tournament host and this year the 25-year-old will spearhead the Championship at his home course in Royal County Down.
Moreover, McIlroy’s personal ties with some of the biggest and most exciting names in world golf has enhanced the field and elevated the event to a whole new level.
“It’s going to be an incredibly special golf tournament,” Antonia Beggs, the tournament’s Championship Director, told The42 as her plan of action begins to be put in place.
“Rory came to us and said he really wanted to help and give something back to the Irish Open. By him putting his name to it, the Rory Foundation has brought it to another level.
“If I was to try and ring Rickie Fowler and get him to come over, it just wouldn’t happen for me but Rory has brought the players with him and we’ve now got an incredibly strong field.”
In 2011, Discover Ireland – the tourism board – provided the bulk of the tournament’s prize money, almost like a bail-out, to ensure the once-prestigious Irish Open didn’t become a non-event.
But it’s been the steadfast loyalty and support of Ireland’s golden generation of golfers which has guaranteed the tournament remained one of the tour’s headline acts. While McIlroy is the one who has secured the future of the event, the part his compatriots have had to be play cannot be understated.
Harrington, Lowry, McDowell, McGinley and Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke will all be in Northern Ireland in nine weeks time as 156 players from all around the world descend on the Emerald Isle for the beginning of what promises to be a new era for Irish golf.
It will be the first time the iconic Royal County Down course will stage the national open since 1939 and the venue adds to the allure with Rickie Fowler – a close friend of McIlroy – among the notables jetting in for a week in Newcastle.
The pair first rose to prominence in a Walker Cup match against each other at Royal County Down back in 2007. They won’t be the only players inside the top 15 with Sergio Garcia hoping to win the title for the second time while Ernie Els and Lee Westwood are just two of the household names returning to these shores.
With the field comes the sponsors.
The news of Dubai Duty Free as tournament sponsor on a five-year deal underlines the power of brand McIlroy. Having had little or no sponsorship revenue streams in recent years, the event now has several other partners with Irish food company Moy Park as well as Eircom getting in on the action.
It’s an organiser’s dream.
“Rory has been very proactive and his involvement has made a huge difference because any sponsors will be associated with him and that’s a huge pull factor,” Beggs, who is also the European Ryder Cup director, continues.
There are just two months to go until the eyes of the golfing world turn to these shores once again for arguably the first time since the staging of the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club.
Interestingly, European Tour officials rearranged the schedule to ensure the tournament fell in the week after the PGA Championship in Wentworth. The timing means those players involved in London the week before don’t have a long journey to make for the Irish Open.
“We wanted to go to that venue and that was one of the few weeks they [Royal County Down] could stage it,” Beggs explains.
“We then had discussions with Rory and our field and with the PGA Championship at Wentworth the week before, players will be only just down the road so it’s easier for them to fly over.”
As expected, ticket sales for the four-day event are going well with organisers expecting the weekend to be a sell-out. The venue can host between 24,000 and 29,000 spectators each day.
The crowds have always remained constant, regardless of the field, throughout the years with the tournament boasting the largest galleries on Tour.
Construction of grandstands, hospitality tents, spectator food villages, media facilities and transportation plans all start on 20 April with Beggs’ job to ensure the course is ready for the players a month later.
“It’s an incredibly strong field and an iconic golf course,” she adds. “The Irish Open has had a good few years but we’re hoping to build on those foundations and kick-on and this year we expect to do so.”