By Brian Keogh
Golf-mad Baltray has been officially announced as the venue for next year's Nissan Irish Open.
One of the great Irish golfing nurseries, County Louth will host the championship for the first time in their history from July 22-25, the week after the Open at Troon.
Home to great players such as Des Smyth, Mark Gannon, Declan Branigan and Barry Reddan, the announcement is a massive boost to golf in the area.
European Tour boss Ken Schofield said: "We are delighted to visit another outstanding example of a great Irish links, with the wonderful course at County Louth Golf Club following on from this year's successful return to Portmarnock.
"We thank Gerard O'Toole, the Executive Chairman of Nissan Ireland and his team for their continued investment in the Nissan Irish Open and to Fáilte Ireland for their long-term support. We look forward to another superb Nissan Irish Open at Baltray next July."
The par 72 track measures just under 7,000 yards but further changes are expected before the cream of European golf tees it up next July.
The decision to remain at a links course has met with the approval of top Irish touring pros such as Paul McGinley, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke.
It will be the fifth different course in six years to stage the event and with County Louth likely to host the event for just one year, a new venue is likely in 2005.
Clarke said: "It's a really good golf course, one of my favourites. I played a lot there as an amateur and the greens were always in brilliant condition. I'm glad it is being played on a links course again.
"The Irish Open should always be played on links. We have some of the best courses in the world and we should be utilising them."
The Tom Simpson-designed course, frequently described as one of the country's "hidden gems", is rated in Golf Digest as one of the top 25 courses in Great Britain and Ireland and in the top six in Ireland.
A worldwide audience of 290 million is expected to tune in and with over 77,000 fans turning up at Portmarnock earlier this year.
Nissan boss Gerard O'Toole said: "Moving the Nissan Irish Open to another top class links location like Baltray is a very exciting step and continues the high tradition of staging the Irish Open at outstanding venues.
"The fact that the East of Ireland Amateur Open Championship is held here, coupled with its proximity to our international airport and Northern Ireland, lends itself to attract even greater spectator numbers next year and we look forward to this."
The choice of a links course is also a massive boost to the Irish Tourist Board, Failte Ireland, who also sponsor the event.
The image of Ireland as a links destination is a keystone of their marketing strategy, especially in the United States, according to Chief Executive Shaun Quinn.
He said: "Fáilte Ireland has supported the Irish Open since 1995 and this prestigious tournament has played a central role in our successful strategy of marketing Ireland as Europe's premier golfing destination.
"We now attract up to 200,000 overseas visitors annually to play golf, yielding close to ¤162 million to the exchequer. The Nissan Irish Open 2004 will generate invaluable media exposure and this coverage will send out a very positive image of Ireland to the world."
But the news is huge boost for the club which is one of the best love golf destinations in the country.
Club captain Thomas Collier believes that the fans will flock to Baltray in their thousands to see Michael Campbell defend the title he won in a play-off at Portmarnock this year.
He said: "On behalf of County Louth Golf Club, may I say what a great honour it is for us to be chosen as the venue for the 2004 Nissan Irish Open.
"Whilst we have hosted many significant events in the past, this is without doubt the biggest undertaking of the club to date.
"With the expectancy of up to 77,000 spectators we are aware not only of the immensity of the undertaking, but also of the enormous tourism benefit to the local community.
"The club acknowledges the co-operation of the local community and adjoining landowners, whose contribution is significant to the overall infrastructure of the venue."
Access to the Baltray venue is not ideal but the organisers expect the 'park and drive' system that operated so well at Portmarnock to ease congestion problems.
Ireland will have a large contingent taking part and Harrington believes the new venue will be a massive success with all the players.
He said: "I'm delighted that it will be at Baltray. It's fantastic for the area and the atmosphere will be brilliant. Just as they did at Portmarnock last year the fans will flock in their thousands to Baltray because it is a great golf course.
"It's thoroughly deserving of an Irish Open. The members have always maintained the course in fantastic condition and I know that the other players on tour are very happy that it has been chosen as the new venue."
The Irish Open was inaugurated in 1927 and played until 1953 before it was revived by Carroll's in 1975 when Christy O'Connor Jnr won at Woodbrook.
It has an impressive array of champions including Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Sergio Garcia, Mark James, Bernhard Langer, Colin Montgomerie, José Maria Olazábal, Sam Torrance and Ian Woosnam.