Rory power proves key as Dubai Duty Free sponsors Irish Open: "It doesn't get better than this"
Rory McIlroy is congratulated by Dubai Duty Free's Colm McLoughlin on his Dubai Desert Classic win earlier this season

Rory McIlroy is congratulated by Dubai Duty Free's Colm McLoughlin on his Dubai Desert Classic win earlier this season

When John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote "With a Little Help from My Friends" they probably never have imagined it would become one of the biggest sellers of all time.  Now, after a four-year desert trek without a title sponsor, it turns out that the combination of Rory McIlroy, The Irish Open and his superstar pals was a heady enough cocktail to attract Dubai Duty Free as title sponsors for what could become one of European Tour's greatest hits. 

Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman, Dubai Duty Free and George O'Grady, Chief Executive, The European Tour. Picture by  Kelvin Boyes

With the world No 1 almost certainly promising to repay big favour to pals Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els and Lee Westwood (so far) for agreeing to tee it up at Royal County Down from May 28-31, the Irish Open looks set to far outstrip the glory days of old and end up becoming the first leg of the long-awaited “Links Swing”, possibly by 2019.

Thanks to McIlroy’s clout, Dubai Duty Free — one of the world’s leading airport retailers with a turnover of US$1.97 BILLION in 2014 — has come on board as title sponsor this year and if all goes well, they will take up an option to remain with the event for the long haul.

In fact, given Dubai Duty Free’s track record in sports sponsorship — they back the Dubai Desert Classic, an ATP tennis event at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium and the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at the Curragh, even darts — this may well turn out to be the biggest sponsorship deal in the history of the irish Open.

Their investment this year is estimated at €5m, which should lead to a 25 percent increase in the prize fund to €2.5m. It is also another step towards building the tournament into a €5million monster that could form the first leg of a three-event "Links Swing" featuring the Scottish Open and The Open Championship.

As McIlroy said in a video message from the US, "…hopefully this is just the start of things to come and we can make it even bigger and even better.”

The world No 1 has close ties to Dubai and remained close to people there since he was an amateur. Jumeirah, one of his first sponsors, runs hotels for Dubai Duty Free, which was set up at the behest of the Dubai government in 1983.

As McIlroy said in a video message from the US, "…hopefully this is just the start of things to come and we can make it even bigger and even better.”

The world No 1 has close ties to Dubai and remained close to people there since he was an amateur. Jumeirah, one of his first sponsors, runs hotels for Dubai Duty Free, which was set up at the behest of the Dubai government in 1983.

The rulers of the emirate asked a 10-man team that included the current Executive Vice Chairman, Ballinasloe born Colm McLoughlin (72), to move from Aer Rianta’s Shannon operation to Dubai in 1983.

“The good thing is that Dubai Duty Free, like the Masters, has long term relationships and short term contracts,” said outgoing European Tour Chief Executive George O’Grady. whose legacy will now boast the Race to Dubai and a strong Irish Open. “So we have a one-year agreement and then we will review. 

"But I should say that we also agreed the Dubai Desert Classic for one year and that was 26 years ago. And Dubai Duty Free agreed to sponsor the Irish Derby for one-year and that was 10 years ago.

“It is hard to see this tournament failing and we have the passion of Rory McIlroy to drive this tournament forward on this iconic links.”

Dubai Duty Free sponsor horseracing's Dubai World Cup

Dubai Duty Free sponsor horseracing's Dubai World Cup

Mr McLoughlin admitted that it was his long-serving vice-president of marketing, Sinead El Sibai, who twisted his arm to get involved in the Irish Open. But in reality, the huge wave of publicity a star like McIlroy can generate made it a no-brainer for a company with major Irish links.

“We promote Dubai as a modern city, a city that has built up dramatically over the past 30 years and the media coverage we get from something like this is quite valuable,” Mr McLoughlin said. “If we were trying to buy that much media coverage, we couldn’t afford to do it. So this is a good way for us to get it.”

In other words, McIlroy is box office all over the world and what better way to piggy back on his fame than by supporting the Irish Open.

It's a strategy that's not been lost on McIlroy's friends, who know they will be repaid in spades if they support the Irish Open. 

While Dustin Johnson said he could be persuaded if Dermot Desmond lays on his private jet, confirmed starters include Els, Garcia, Fowler, Westwood and the Irish major winners Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke.

In other words,, the field for the first “Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Hosted by the Rory Foundation” is set to be the strongest ever. 

The sponsors are not in Ireland, however, which means that Des Smyth will act as Dubai Duty Free’s tournament ambassador — a liaison between the players and what promises to be a massive corporate sideshow, all pushed by McIlroy and his foundation.

(L-R) Barry Funston, Chief Executive, the Rory Foundation; Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman, Dubai Duty Free; George O'Grady, Chief Executive, The European Tour; Kathryn Thomson, Chief Operating Officer, Tourism NI. Picture by  Kelvin Boyes

(L-R) Barry Funston, Chief Executive, the Rory Foundation; Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman, Dubai Duty Free; George O'Grady, Chief Executive, The European Tour; Kathryn Thomson, Chief Operating Officer, Tourism NI. Picture by  Kelvin Boyes

And the veteran swinger, who has no intention of seeking an invitation to play in the event, has no doubt that McIlroy will have to repay many favours to his friends. It's the way the world works for vastly wealthy sportsmen who need more than money to persuade them to travel.

“He is an impressive guy, a very impressive young man,” Smyth said of McIlroy’s sense of duty as world No 1. “With Padraig back on form and all the friends Rory has confirmed, this is going to be an enormous tournament and will bring the feel good factor back to the Irish Open.  

“Going on the world rankings, this could be a strongest Irish Open field we have ever had, bringing it back to its glory days. Rory has attracted all those big names that might not have come otherwise. You know how it works — they might have asked him to do something for one of their foundations in return, so it is a quid pro quo.”

With a title sponsor and a great field in place, all that now remains for the Irish Open to secure a viable rota on links terrain and a date closer to The Open, setting up the possibility of a Links Swing.

The first week in July currently occupied by the Alstom Open de France but the rearrangement of the 2016 schedule to suit the Olympic Games calendar shift not to mention the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris, may open the way for the Tour's No 1 player.

It may take a few years to achieve that goal and when asked about a possible venue in the Republic of Ireland for 2016, a European Tour official said, "It depends what Rory wants."

Dubai Duty Free and ATP tennis

Dubai Duty Free and ATP tennis

McIlroy now calls the shots, it’s clear that his objective will be to grow the event and the charity sums it generates for The Rory Foundation and other causes. Playing as often as possible on links terrain is key and it will be important that the women's issue that's been solved at the Royal and Ancient and Royal St George's recently soon gets an airing at a venue like Portmarnock.

The future is bright but if all goes well in May, it will also become clearer.

While the Faldo Course at Lough Erne has already been confirmed as host for 2017, a venue such as County Louth might be ideal in 2016 with Donald Trump’s revamped Doonbeg a potential host in 2018.

As McIlroy said in a video message played at the press conference, “…hopefully this is just the start of things to come and we can make it even bigger and even better.”

With The Open set to be played at Royal Portrush before the end of the decade, an Irishman at world No 1 and another set to become Ireland's second successive Ryder Cup captain, it was no wonder Smyth was pinching himself.

"I never thought I'd see the day," he said of Ireland's golfing success and our string of major winners. "This is as good as it gets."

  • More than 80,000 spectators are expected and tens of thousands of tickets have already been sold for the event, which is supported by Tourism Northern Ireland. 
  • Advance tickets to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by the Rory Foundation are currently available at £30 per day with season tickets available for £75.
  • Families will be delighted to hear that under-16s will be admitted FREE as long as they are accompanied by an adult (up to four children are allowed with one paying adult).
  • For more information on the 2015 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by the Rory Foundation or to purchase tickets, visit www.irishopen.ie.
  • For information on accommodation offers and golf in Northern Ireland, visit www.discovernorthernireland.com/irish-open-2015.