Lough Erne and RCD - politicians (and Rory) show their clout
Royal County Down captain Peter Brown, Minster Arleen Foster, European Tour CEO George O'Grady and First Minister Peter Robinson look and listen as Rory McIlroy sends a good luck message to Royal County Down and Lough Erne from the Shell Houston Open. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Royal County Down captain Peter Brown, Minster Arleen Foster, European Tour CEO George O'Grady and First Minister Peter Robinson look and listen as Rory McIlroy sends a good luck message to Royal County Down and Lough Erne from the Shell Houston Open. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

The announcement of the 2015 Irish Open for Royal County Down is understandable but with the 2017 event handed to  Lough Erne, a resort in the hands of administrators KPMG since 2011, political clout and the influence of Rory McIlroy are more than a little in evidence.

First Minister Peter Robinson openly teased  Enterprise, Trade and Investment leader Arlene Foster about the move to Lough Erne, which is in her Fermanagh constituency.

"It's remarkable that when we have a royal visit to Northern Ireland, there's lobbying that has to go down to County Fermanagh," Robinson joked of Lough Erne, the Nick Faldo designed parkland course near Enniskillen.

"When we have the G8, there's lobbying that has to go down to County Fermanagh.  When The European Tour (comes), it has to go down to County Fermanagh.  And I can't imagine who it is is doing the lobbying for all of these events (laughter), but it is great to see, because that is a tremendous course, as well."

Minister Foster laughed along but was more serious and not at all forthcoming when asked how much these Irish Open stagings in Northern Ireland were going to cost the taxpayer. 

"It's commercially confidential," she said. "We will not be talking about it; it's a bit vulgar, but we will, I have no doubt, reap the benefits of our investment to The European Tour.  They have become not only partners but very good friends of the ministerial team and the Northern Ireland Executive."

I asked Minister Foster how much public money the Northern Ireland Executive invested in Royal Portrush in 2012 — estimated at between €1m and €1.5m in some media reports. Given that it is available under freedom of information, she should have had no problem trotting off the figure. But like a European Tour's commercial director when asked the same question, she could not remember the figure or whether it had been made public. Her assistant took my email address....

Despite being put in the shop window by last year's G8 summit, Lough Erne is still looking for a buyer at a bargain price of just £10m. Can the Irish Open make a difference and help sell a a 120-room hotel and golf course was put into the hands of administrators KPMG in May 2011? It will be interesting to see much TV coverage of golf can help.

McIlroy's presence will certainly do no harm and he clearly had a major role to play in the choice of Royal County Down, not to mention the Irish Open date of late May.

"Well, the date had to move in 2015, anyway, because there's one less week between the U.S. Open and The Open Championship; so something had to go," George O'Grady said. "And as this was a date that worked very well with certain leading Irish players who would put it in their schedule, because it's backing on to the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, we've got the very best chance of getting the strongest possible field and certainly one that looks after the home grown talent."

Certain leading Irish players mean McIlroy — and Graeme McDowell — as the European Tour CEO admitted yesterday.

"It was Rory McIlroy’s inspired suggestion to me during the 2013 BMW Masters in China that proved to be the catalyst for today’s announcement," O'Grady said.

The purse strings of the governments north and south of the border are also crucial for an event that has no title sponsor and needs more than gate receipts and local business support to come close to breaking even.

As one of the cornerstones of the European Tour, keeping the event going has been crucial as far as image is concerned. As Thomas Bjorn said last year, "if you start losing events like the Irish Open, where do you stop?"

Government cash is crucial. Without it, there would be no event.

"We must acknowledge the vision and commitment of First Minister Peter Robinson, Minister Arlene Foster, and their colleagues within the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to secure the return of the Irish Open to Northern Ireland in 2015 and 2017, which further underlines the country’s presence on the world stage following the outstanding achievements of its players in recent years."

Asked about the lack of a title sponsor and the multi-sponsor platform, O'Grady said: 

"We work together with the governments of both sides, the Northern Ireland Executive up here and with (Taoiseach) Enda (Kenny), as well, who we spent a half a day with him in Dublin recently, and his team, and he wants The Irish Open to be as strong as it can because he still believes it's a wonderful advertisement, if you like, for Ireland, certainly golf in Ireland but Ireland as a country, as well.  He says in a golfing sense, people come to Ireland to play golf whether it's the north or south, and ideally you play everywhere and are welcomed everywhere. 

"I think hearing Minister Foster speak about the impact of Portrush after we left, a lot of the businesses there, certainly Royal Portrush itself, straight after the tournament, it was really hard to get a visitor's green fee time from then to the end of the year.  They were virtually booked out every time and that impact there and at other clubs in the region, I think you'll see the same impact in the area around here to all the local businesses and the people coming in."

If Lough Erne or Royal County Down are as remotely successful as Royal Portrush was in 2012, the government millions will have been well spent.