House Party at Carton - but can the Irish Open go on forever without a title sponsor?

Representatives of the Irish Open Three Towns Initiative at Carton House, with (l-r) Tony Lenehan, Failte Ireland’s Head of Golf Tourism, James Finnigan, Commercial Director of the Irish Open, Antonia Beggs, Irish Open Championship Director, Conor Mallaghan, Managing Partner of Carton House, and Peter Minnock, Director of Services Kildare County Council. Credit Eoin Clarke/golffilePeople power, government cash and Ireland’s quartet of major champions will continue to fuel the Irish Open.

But while the European Tour has not given up all hope of ending its three-year quest for a title sponsor that could make it one of the richest events in Europe once more and attract an even better field, they are not going to give it away for a song.

The presence of major winners Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell as well as Ryder Cup skipper Paul McGinley and Carton House touring professional Shane Lowry continues to be crucial to the future of the Irish Open.

But if the European Tour is to boost the current €2m prize fund and attract more players from the world’s top 50, it knows if cannot afford to sell the Irish Open cheaply to a potential title sponsor.

“Players have been seduced by the PGA Tour to play for six or seven million dollars every week in life,” explained the European Tour’s James Finnigan, the Irish Open’s Commercial Director.

“They take a first prize cheque that sometimes exceeds the prize fund we have on offer in Europe so it is commercial reality. The commercial reality is that we have a €2m event and that’s a €4m project for the European Tour to deliver a quality tournament.

“We are not going to offer it to a sponsor for a fraction of that price. It needs to be a good cheque which makes as big a contribution to the prize fund.”

Rory McIlroy putts on the 18th green at Royal Portrush during last year’s third round. Photo Jenny Matthews/www.golffile.ieWhile matching last year’s European Tour record 112,280 attendance for the four tournament days at Royal Portrush is an impossible dream, the European Tour insisted yesterday that advance tickets sales are already ahead of those for the weather-lashed 2006 staging at the Maynooth demesne.

Totally reliant on gate receipts, a group of 13 official sponsors and a €1.5m investment by Fáilte Ireland, the European Tour covers any potential shortfall in the €4m staging costs.

Last year’s Irish Open generated a €1m profit but this year the costs include nearly €50,000 to build an amphitheatre style, 1,500-seater grandstand at the par-three 17th, complete with bar and giant screen.

It’s not quite the 20,000 capacity “stadium” that makes the par-three 16th in the US Tour’s Waste Management Open in Phoenix a non-stop, beer-fest. But the tour is hoping that what they’ve dubbed the “Open House at 17” project will add to a party atmosphere that could persuade a potential title sponsor that the Irish Open is a great investment.

“The title sponsor cheque is elusive to us right now,” Finnigan said. “But we are hopeful and have a number of people coming to this year’s tournament who could make a potential investment.

“We will not mention any names but it will be a great showcase of golf, of Ireland all things European Tour here in the last week in June.

A computer generated mock up of the 1,500 capacity grandstand around the 17th green which will become the ‘Open House’ hub for fans attending this year’s Irish Open at Carton House. “Hopefully at the end of the week somebody will say, ‘I am brave enough to associate my business with that and develop my business in golf.’

“We were fortunate in the early days to have some individuals who were brave enough to be the title sponsors and unfortunately now we are lacking that in the business community.”

Hoping to tap into a 50,000 population in the catchment area around Carton House, the organisers have launched a “Three Towns Initiative” involving festival style activities in nearby Maynooth, Leixlip and Celbridge with former Irish Open champions Brett Rumford, Richard Finch and Ross Fisher acting as Ambassadors for each of the three towns.

With the British and Irish Lions test set to be shown on giant screens at the course on Saturday morning, fans are encouraged to snap up a special “Super Saturday” ticket, which includes entry to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at the Curragh later that evening for the all inclusive price of €50.

As for the field, just five of the world’s top 50 are expected with McIlroy and McDowell joined by Francesco Molinari, Thongchai Jaidee and defending champion Jamie Donaldson.

Just one of the eight sponsors’ invitations has been named with West Waterford’s Seamus Power, currently winning regularly on the eGolf Tour in the US, finally getting the nod after several fruitless attempts.

The other seven invitations will be decided over the next few weeks but while it has not been confirmed, we understand that big-hitting, two-time major winner John Daly is also expected to make an appearance.

Maynooth bound? John Daly tries to get his bearings in Portrush last year. Photo Jenny Matthews/www.golffile.ieHow long the Irish Open can continue to survive under the current model will depend on three crucial factors: the presence of McIlroy in the field, the willingness of European Tour Chief Executive George O’Grady to underwrite the event and government support through Fáilte Ireland.

While it has but one of the cornerstones of the European Tour since it began, the Irish Open cannot be taken for granted.

One only has to look at the fate of the English Open and the European Open since they lost their title sponors. 

“Once an event falls off the schedule it is very difficult to get it back again,” Finnigan pointed out at Carton House yesterday when referring to the loss of the English and European Opens.

Irish Open fans continue to ensure the survival of an event that is still immensely popular with the rank and file European Tour players.

But given the global scale of the game these days, it is unlikely to regain its position as one of the elite events on the schedule without a massive injection of cash from a title sponsor in an age when the game’s elite are obliged to play just 13 events. Even then, there are no guarantees.

Ignoring the PGA Tour, no fewer than 22 events on the European Tour International Schedule offer a bigger prize fund than the Irish Open.

Add to that the top events in the US and the smaller events that pay appearance fees and it’s no surprise that the Irish Open struggles to attract more players from the world’s top 50 beyond McIlroy and McDowell. 

With the Majors, the World Golf Championships and the European Tour’s new Final Series - four events with prize funds between $7m and $8.5m - standing out from the crowd is going to require plenty of imagination and enthusiasm.

The European Tour and Carton House have done a sterling job so far in making this year’s Irish Open an attractive prospect.

But if you were in any doubt about where the Irish Open stands on the cash totem pole on the global European Tour, he’s a breakdown of the 2013 schedule:

  1. WGC - Accenture Match Play Championship $8,750,000, WGC - Cadillac Championship $8,750,000, WGC - Bridgestone Invitational $8,750,000
  2. WGC - HSBC Champions $8,500,000
  3. US PGA CHAMPIONSHIP €6,507,051*
  4. US OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP €6,433,971*
  5. THE 142nd OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP €6,347,075*
  6. MASTERS TOURNAMENT $8,000,00, DP WORLD TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP DUBAI $8,000,000
  7. BMW Masters $7,000,000, Turkish Airlines Open $7,000,000
  8. BMW PGA CHAMPIONSHIP €4,750,000
  9. Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open £3,000,000
  10. Alfred Dunhill Links Championship $5,000,000
  11. Alstom Open de France €3,000,000
  12. Volvo World Match Play Championship €3,000,000
  13. Volvo China Open RMB20,000,000 $3,264,400
  14. Ballantine’s Championship €2,205,000
  15. Omega European Masters €2,200,000
  16. ISPS Handa Wales Open £1,800,000
  17. Maybank Malaysian Open $2,750,000
  18. Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship $2,700,000
  19. Volvo Golf Champions €2,000,000, BMW International Open €2,000,000, The Irish Open €2,000,000, Portugal Masters €2,000,000
  20. Avantha Masters €1,800,000, KLM Open €1,800,000
  21. Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles £1,400,000
  22. Commercial Bank Qatar Masters $2,500,000, Omega Dubai Desert Classic $2,500,000
  23. Perth International $2,000,000
  24. Open d’Italia €1,508,982*
  25. Alfred Dunhill Championship €1,500,000, Trophée Hassan II €1,500,000, Nordea Masters €1,500,000, Tshwane Open €1,500,000, Open de España €1,500,000,
  26. Joburg Open €1,300,000
  27. Africa Open €1,000,000; Nelson Mandela Championship presented by ISPS Handa €1,000,000, Lyoness Open powered by Greenfinity €1,000,000, M2M Russian Open €1,000,000
  28. Madeira Islands Open – Portugal – BPI €600,000
  29. Najeti Hotels et Golfs Open presented by Neuflize OBC €500,000

* 2012 prize fund (2013 TBA)