Tough times ahead for the Irish Open

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Padraig Harrington’s defence his Irish Open title could be his last as the historic event teeters on the brink of crisis once more.

Adare Manor’s Tom Kane rescued the Irish Open from disaster last year by signing a three-year deal to host and organise Ireland’s top international sporting event until 2009.

The former marine fighter pilot boosted the prize fund to €2.5 million and hoped to make that €4 million this year by attracting on more ‘Proud Partners’ or sponsors.

But his bid to reinvigorate the event turned into a massive €1.6 million financial loss as the big Irish companies and some of Ireland’s richest businessmen turned their backs on him.

Those losses could reach a hefty €2.5 million for the first two years as the Irish Open has lost two majors sponsors.

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And while Kane has a contract to host the event again next season, with an option to go on until 2011, continuing in the present format looks more and more like financial suicide.

Add to that the fact that the European Tour is thinking of going north of the border, where sponsorship is even tougher to find, and the future is looking bleak

A European Tour source said: “We know Tom Kane isn’t happy with the way things are going and we aren’t happy either."

Despite the race for Ryder Cup points, this year’s field will be no stronger than last year’s when Harrington and Lee Westwood were the only players from the world’s top 50 competing.

Pallas Foods and Kingspan have pulled their sponsorship and even the €1 million bonus on offer pulling off an Irish Open - BMW PGA Championship double has been scrapped.

Westwood won’t be playing this year either as he competes in the Players Championship at Sawgrass the week before the Irish Open.

And while Darren Clarke will be back after missing out with injury last year and Rory McIlroy will tee it up for the first time as a professional, the top names will be noticeable by their absence.

The only plus is that Harrington is back as Open champion.

But the normally gung-ho Kane is down in the dumps about the lack of interest from the Irish business community and the lack of action by the tour on finding a better date.

Fully recovered from the cancer scare he suffered last year, Kane said: “I have to say I am a bit disillusioned. I thought there would be a bigger swell of support for it. It is not just the money, it is about the event. I am not in it for the glory.

“This is a national event in a country I love, a country where I spend most of my time and where I have a major investment.

“I am very proud of having Roadbridge, McInerney, McNamara and Shannon Development come in behind us. But there is a whole list of business people who haven’t shown up.

“You get the impression that they are saying: Let that guy swing in the breeze. Well, okay. That’s fine. I enjoyed the music festival we ran for three years back in the 90s too but when it was gone it was gone and that’s nearly 20 years ago.”

New Jersey born Kane hoped for an increase in sponsorship from Failte Ireland from €400,000 to €800,000, which would cut his losses to around €600,000 this year.

But that windfall looks increasingly unlikely.

He is still amazed that major financial institutions that traditionally sponsor Irish golf have not come in to help one of European golf's best events.

AIB has decided to weigh in behind the Irish Ladies Open and the run-in to the 2011 Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle in Co Meath.

But there is also amazement in golfing circles that club member JP McManus - who will almost certainly attract Tiger Woods to his Invitational Pro-Am at Adare in 2010 - has not come on board.

Kane said: “We still haven’t managed to get a bank or a telecoms company although we have an insurance company that might be coming in for a smaller amount.

“We cut the price of the pro-am teams to €40,000 and wrapped it around a hospitality package at the Manor but it is still a bit disappointing in terms of the sponsorships coming in.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know if people give a damn about the Irish Open. Some people that you would normally think would come in an support it are noticeable by their absence.

“We lost money last year and that loss will be reduced this year with Failte Ireland coming in with more money.

“Looking out to next year, the tour couple has got a few more things up their sleeve. But the question is, what do you do after that?

“Maybe I am just the wrong guy to run it. It may have to be an Irish face to come in and pick Irish pockets, so to speak. I just don’t know.”

The tour is toying with the idea of moving the Irish Open from May to a July 30 to August 2 slot - despite the fact that it will clash with the Galway Races.

After last year’s Seve trophy debacle, which was completely overshadowed by the clashing National Ploughing Championships, that looks like another suicidal move.

This year’s Irish Open takes place at the jaw-dropping Limerick venue from May 15-18.

Munster golf fans will turn up in their thousands again as the TV pictures are beamed to more than 30 countries and in over 100 million homes around the world.

It seems that Irish business will be looking elsewhere.