Tourism chiefs red-faced over Harri loss

By Brian Keogh

Red-faced Irish tourism chiefs are desperate to re-sign Padraig Harrington as Ireland's global golfing ambassador.

The new Open champion - golf's hottest property after his major win - was dropped by Fáilte Ireland at the end of last year for "commercial" reasons.

Harrington carried the "Golfing in Ireland" logo on his bag thanks to goodwill deal that cost Failte Ireland a bargain basement €150,000 for FOUR YEARS.

And the tourism body's Director of Golf, Damian Ryan, claims it's time to back-track and get him back on board.

Ryan said: "It has taken 60 years for Ireland to get a major winner. And I think we should exploit this in every possible way by using Padraig globally, both on his bag and any other way we could possibly do it.

"Hopefully we can get back on stream and have Padraig as our golfing ambassador. We sponsored him for four years but it ended after a commercial decision.

"Hopefully, because of what he has done, we can reconsider the situation and go back in and negotiate and have him as Ireland's overseas promoter, especially in the American market.

"If we can get back on his bag, he can promote Ireland so well abroad because of the way he holds himself and the fact that he is held in such high esteem in the United States."

The "Golfing in Ireland" logo on Harrington's tour bag has since been replaced by White Oak Plantation, a $50 million residential community in North Carolina owned by a Irish rally driver Austin McHale and his brother-in-law, Leonard Kinsella.

That deal is set to run until the end of 2010 and while the final decision is out of his hands, Ryan is keen to re-negotiate with Harrington's management group IMG.

Describing the previous agreement as "very good value for money", he said: "I would hope that discussions would start with IMG shortly and I would hope that we would take him on board.

"But it is not my decision. I am only one voice. What happened at the end of last year was a commercial decision.

"I put forward my strong views on the pluses and I respect the decision that was taken. But if we do go back into discussions I will be recommending that we sign him."

Harrington was was formally congratulated by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for his Open victory at a special reception at Government Buildings in Dublin yesterday.

The Dubliner beamed: "Winning the Open on Sunday was one of the most special occasions but it is events like this that put the icing on the cake. To come here and be formally congratulated by the Taoiseach and by the government of Ireland is very special for me.

"I would like to formally thank all my supporters in Ireland, all my fans in Ireland and all the people of Ireland for all their support over the years."

Ahern described the Dubliner, 35, as "an enormous ambassador for Ireland for over a decade."

What he thinks of Failte Ireland's "commerical" decision remains to be seen.

Harrington simply smiled when asked about the possibility of Failte Ireland making reappearance on his bag.

On his four-year relationship, he said: "I was unbelievably proud. You can't ask for more than to be out there representing your country."

Failte Ireland has based a large part of its future marketing strategy around 2011 Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle - a match between the top women professional from Europe and the US.

Ryan said: "We have the Solheim Cup coming in 2011 and if we can get one or two Irish ladies on that team it would be a hell of a boost for us. The Solheim Cup is the one event we never had so we decided to move in on that.

"We have had two American Express Championships and a Ryder Cup. We have the European Open, the Irish Open, the AIB Irish Seniors Open, a Challenge Tour event and an Irish Ladies Open from next year until 2011."

And Dubliner Ryan still holds out hope that Ireland can host the Open at Royal Portrush - despite the fact that the R&A has said that it is not suitable for big crowds and would require massive investment in the local infrastructure.

He said: "All we want from the R&A is a date, even if it is 10 or 15 years into the future. Portrush can house all the media and hospitality units on the second course. We deserve the Open for what Ireland has given the professional and the amateur game."