Irish Open heading for extinction

The Irish Open looks set to plummet into oblivion after European Tour bosses took away the event’s financial safety net this week.

Adare Manor boss Tom Kane has lost a massive €2.9 million since he took the plunge and signed a three-year deal to host The Irish Open at the Limerick venue two years ago.

But the former US fighter pilot cannot take another financial hit and has been released from his commitment by the Tour, leaving the event without a home or sponsors.

After underwriting an estimated €10 million in losses over the past six years, European Tour boss George O’Grady won't be left "holding the financial baby" and warned that the Irish Open must now pay its own way or face the consequences.

And things look bleak despite the fact that Irish pros have won eight times this season with superstar Padraig Harrington claiming back to back Majors at the Open and the US PGA.

Speaking at the launch of the "Race to Dubai" in Gleneagles, O’Grady said: “The fact is, the financial cost is hurting Tom Kane and the European Tour will not invest significant sums again in The Irish Open. This is a very serious situation. It has got to stand on its own two feet now.

“We have invested in The Irish Open ever since Nissan came on board in 2003. We underwrote it. That means you take a risk. If you don’t get enough income, you carry it.

“There has been a loss on it. We have been happy to do that on the basis we made a profit out of The Ryder Cup.

“The financial cost is hurting Tom Kane and the European Tour will not invest significant sums again in The Irish Open. This is a very serious situation. It has got to stand on its own two feet now.” George O’Grady, CEO European Tour

“We will be the underwriter of last resort but not if we have to carry an enormous financial burden. In these troubled times, we can’t take that risk. We have offers in Eastern Europe.”

Asked bluntly if there would be an Irish Open next year, O’Grady added: “We certainly hope so and you will see by the schedule that we have ‘venue to be announced’.

“We have agreed to modify our arrangement with Tom and Judy Kane at Adare Manor, because it’s a tough one for them, to see if there are other people who will come forward from other parts of Ireland.

“Tom Kane has been very fair. We have relieved him of his contract for the future but he has kept the offer that we can return to Adare Manor if we want to.

“But we are seeing if there are companies and venues and other parties who would provide the necessary support to play elsewhere. We’re trying to explore every different avenue in Ireland.”

New Jersey born Kane and his wife Judy rescued The Irish Open when Nissan pulled the plug in 2006.

The larger than life American tried to run the event without a title sponsor and while Harrington won in inaugural event in 2007, ending Ireland’s 25-year wait for a home winner, the tournament failed to attract enough support.

Failte Ireland invested just €384,000 last season but none of the major players in Irish banking, insurance or telecommunications came on board, leaving Kane and the European Tour to cover the losses.

At the time, Kane said: “I have to say I am a bit disillusioned. I thought there would be a bigger swell of support for it. It’s like they are saying, let this guy swing in the breeze.”

O’Grady confessed that the Kane family has “taken the Irish Open forward in terms of the quality of the course and hotel.”

But he added: “Yet either we are doing something wrong or he is doing something wrong, so we want to open it up to the rest of Ireland and say ‘has anybody else got a big interest in doing it’ because we can’t afford to do it’. We’re still there. We are still at the table.”

Scheduled for 14-17 May next year, the Irish Open now faces extinction unless new sponsors can be found in time.

And while O’Grady still believes the event has a “60-40” chance of going ahead, the future looks bleak for the home event of triple Major champion Harrington in the current economic climate.

The European Tour held talks with Minister for Sport, Martin Cullen, the during the Ryder Cup in Valhalla three weeks ago.

But despite Harrington’s commitment to play and interest from the Northern Ireland tourist board, nothing is certain.

Asked about a possible cross-border deal, O’Grady explained: “It’s too early to say on that stuff. We are seeing if anybody wants to come forward for the Irish Open. We have ongoing discussions with Failte Ireland, the Government and with the private sector.

"We are trying to find out if they want to be in Dublin, the North or at different venues. We are well aware of the economic situation.

“Not just me but my predecessor Ken Schofield felt the Irish Open was a crucial event for the European Tour. I’m wedded to a minimum of at least one event in Ireland.

“I think the Irish Open sends a message at this particular time with the greatest European Tour golfer being Padraig Harrington. He’s committed to play.

“We want to keep it going. I’ve had very good meetings with Minister Cullen at The Ryder Cup.

“I think the Minister has got a lot of other things on his plate. But he feels it is very strong for Ireland. He does want to do it and he does feel the private sector should step up.

“We now have a contractual situation that we can go to Adare Manor if we want to. But we don’t have to and Tom Kane completely accepts that. If the Irish Open could succeed elsewhere, he wants what’s good for Ireland.

“So, if there are companies there who could take it forward or if Failte Ireland or the Government want to market other parts of Ireland, fine, he’s leaving us open to do that. If anyone wants to come forward and still play at Adare Manor, that’s fine.

“I made that very clear to Minister Cullen and he was very positive coming back. I think his phrase is ‘he’ll explore every avenue’. It is work in progress.

“We don’t want to announce the schedule with regard to the Irish Open. It is work in progress. We are now trying to explore if it was holding companies back that they had to go to Adare as opposed to Dublin, The K Club, Cork, the North, anything you damn well like. In other words free it up.

“But the only thing is if, at the end of that exploration process, we are left holding the financial baby, we do not have the money to fund an Irish Open anymore.”