Cullen rescues Irish Open from oblivion

Golf mad Sports Minister Martin Cullen grabbed a massive Chinese takeaway by securing multi-million euro sponsorship deal to save the Irish Open.

Mobile phone group ‘3’ - owned by the mega-rich Hong Kong conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa (HWL) - will join Failte Ireland and the European Tour in a three-year agreement designed to bring back the Irish Open’s glory days.

Providing they can get the course ready in time, Kilkenny gem Mount Juliet is the front-runner to host a €3m Irish Open from May 14-17 next year - a jump of 20 percent in this year’s prize fund.

The financial details of the deal were hammered out in Dublin yesterday with 13-handicapper Cullen revealing that “sheer determination” had driven him to find a way of saving the event.

Cullen said: “As a golf fan myself I couldn’t understand why, in the good years, we were slipping back a bit. So when I came into this department I decided I was going to grab the issue by the scruff of the neck.

“I went and I met Hutchison Whampoa down in Hong Kong during the Olympics and I had a week with the board of directors down there and I have been back and forth since.

“At first they were surprised by our interest. But they had a good look at it and they have great ideas and will bring majors players to the pot internationally.

“The object was to put the Irish Open back into the top ten events on the European Tour and that is what we are going to do.

"It is a big commitment from ‘3’. They are not half-hearted. It is a big title sponsor. It is a big step.”

Hong Kong based Hutchison Whampoa is owned by  Li Ka-shing, the eleventh richest man in the world according to Forbes with an estimated wealth of US$26.5 billion.

Know as "Superman" in Hong Kong, Li's  '3' company sponsored Padraig Harrington in a one-off deal at this year's US PGA and this week secured a lucrative Irish government tender to roll out broadband in rural areas.

The Irish Open deal had nothing to do with Ireland's triple Major winner, who confessed that he feared for the future of the event before yesterday's unofficial announcement.

Harrington said: “It’s great news. It definitely looked touch and go there for a while and I was worried.

“But it’s obviously a very big company. As I always said, to make an investment as big as that you need an international company that wants to get the coverage around the world

“I don’t think Mount Juliet is confirmed yet. Obviously I’ve been kept informed and know well what’s going on.  I’d be very supportive of the idea, even though I thought Adare was an excellent venue.

“The Irish Open has always been a great event and it will be a great event there. It’s coming back to strength and the prize money is increasing. It’s not far short of $4 million now.”

Cullen revealed that the Irish government will be a major stakeholder in the new Irish Open through Failte Ireland, which failed to increase its investment in the event following the Ryder Cup.

The Minster added: “We will have a big input in this. I felt golf was one of our big products but we all kind of stood back and let the air out of the tyre after the Ryder Cup and then we lost the European Open.

“I felt we badly need to have the Irish Open back up as a really big tournament. We have gone to a certain prize fund level next year and we will lift it then over the coming years as well.”

Getting the Irish Open back on a links course is a major objective for Failte Ireland, who want to attract American golfers to visit Ireland.

But the Jack Nicklaus designed Mount Juliet is the next best thing after hosting three editions of the Irish Open from 1993 and two hugely successful editions of the American Express World Golf Championship in 2002 and 2004.

Tiger Woods grabbed the first Amex and described the greens as the best he’d ever seen before losing the title to Ernie Els two years later.