Irish seek to end LET drought

By Brian Keogh

Legend has it that St Patrick once blessed a well on lands that were later to become the Castle Upton Estate, the future home of Hilton Templepatrick Hotel and Golf Resort.

According to the legend, the well has never run dry and perhaps that's a good omen for women's professional golf in this country with the Northern Ireland Ladies Open set to take place on the David Jones designed course from June 1-3.

While Cork's Claire Coughlan shared the winner's rostrum with Samantha Head in the Ladies European Tour qualifying school in Spain last autumn, an Irishwoman has yet to win a full-fledged LET event.

It's a victory drought that must end sooner rather than later and while a high quality field will make life tough for the Irish entrants, Hilton Templepatrick would be an ideal scenario for a long-awaited victory.

It's still too early to expect 11-year-old twin golfing sensations Lisa and Leona Maguire from Cavan to contend for victory in this company, but the Ballyconnell pair are sure to draw a bigger gallery than most when they become the youngest players to compete in a professional event on the Ladies European Tour.

The wonder girls, already the youngest in ILGU history to play in the Irish Ladies Close Championship, have received a special invitation to play in the €200,000 championship and will join Michelle Wie as the youngest in the world to compete in Ladies Tour events.

Wie was 12 years, three months and 18 days when she teed up in the Takefuji Classic held in Las Vegas in 2002 while the Maguires will be 12 years and six months when the event starts on June 1.

Playing out of Slieve Russell in their native Co Cavan, the pair have made a stellar start to the 2007 season with Leona becoming the first Irish girl to win the Scottish Under-16 Girls Championship.

The girls' father, Declan Maguire, believes that the 2011 Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle will come too soon for his wee wonders and he is simply keeping his fingers crossed that they are playing off the minimum handicap of three in order to take their places in an elite field.

Whatever happens, the arrival of the Ladies European Tour in Northern Ireland is a positive step for ladies professional golf in Ireland.

The June event will be the first ladies professional tournament held north or south of the border since the Northern Ireland Events Company brought the BT Ladies Open to Warrenpoint Golf Club in 2003.

In 1997, the Guardian Irish Open was held at Luttrellstown Castle in Dublin and was followed by successive Donegal Irish Ladies Opens in Ballyliffin and Letterkenny on 1998 and 1999.

In 2000, Ireland played host to two major events with the TSN Ladies World Cup Golf at Adare Manor and the Waterford Crystal Ladies Irish Open at Faithlegg in Waterford.

The Ladies Irish Open returned to Faithlegg in 2001 and moved to Killarney in 2002 and 2003 before being dropped from the schedule due to lack of funding.

The event will return to the LET next year as part of a five-year deal between the tour and Failte Ireland worth €5 million.

Half of this figure will be ploughed into re-launching the Ladies Irish Open as one of the flagship tournaments on the Ladies European Tour but golf fans here will get a chance to see some of Europe's top stars in action at one of Ulster's most challenging courses.

French star Gwladys Nocera, England's Trish Johnson and Rebecca Hudson and Dane Karen-Margrethe Juul are all scheduled to play an event that will will be broadcast to over 75 countries and reach an estimated one billion homes.

The Northern Ireland Events Company has agreed to back the event for the next three years and hopes to reap the benefits of worldwide media coverage.

"Golf plays a significant role in the Tourism industry of Northern Ireland as we have some of the best courses in the world, alongside breathtaking scenery and a warm welcome," said Ian Lee, vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Events Golf Committee.

"For this reason, the Northern Ireland Events Company has agreed to a three year programme to host a Ladies European Tour event in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The event delivers over £2.4m of international media coverage and we anticipate that the event will deliver significant economic benefit to the region."

The Northern Ireland Ladies Open will also be supported by Antrim Borough Council and the Irish Ladies Golf Union.

And the top players in Europe are guarantee an severe test on a course that measures more than 7,300 yards from the back stakes.