Ballyliffin and Portrush seek Irish Open

By Brian Keogh

The future of the Irish Open lies on the links land of Ulster with Donegal gem Ballyliffin announcing a joint bid to host the event in conjunction with Royal Portrush from 2010.

With Adare Manor’s three-year Irish Open deal set to end next season, the European Tour is actively seeking a new venue.

And providing the tourism authorities on both sides of the border come to the table with funding, the tournament will be held on Antrim’s Causeway Coast and Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula in alternate years in 2010 and 2011.

The move is a brave new departure for the event, which has been run without a title sponsor since Nissan ended its four-year association at Carton House in 2006.

Adare Manor’s Tom and Judy Kane secured the right to host the championship until 2009 and will sit down with the European Tour over the next few days to discuss the financial implications of the latest staging in Limerick, with the host course’s losses believed to be in the region of €1.1 million compared to €1.6 million last year.

Ballyliffin has already hosted a European Tour event with Sweden’s Adam Mednick winning the weather-ravaged North West of Ireland Open on the esteemed Glashedy Links in 2002.

Now the 36-hole club on Donegal’s spectacularly beautiful Inishowen peninsula is set to be thrust back into the limelight when a star-studded field battles for a €67,500 top prize in the the €450,000 Irish Seniors Open on the European Seniors Tour from June 20-22.

The event will be played on the Old Links, which underwent a major overhaul by Nick Faldo in 2006, and it is effectively a dry run for a possible Irish Open staging in 2011, when construction of a new 120-bedroom hotel in the town is expected to be complete.

Given that scenario, Royal Portrush is best placed to host the Irish Open in 2010 and become the first Ulster venue to stage the championship since Scotland’s Eric Brown lifted the title at Belvoir Park in 1953.

Ballyliffin’s general manager John Farren has revealed that the arrival of the European Seniors Tour in Donegal came about after a initial approach by the club to host the Irish Open on the newer Glashedy Course, a proposal which still stands.

“I was approaching [Ryder Cup director] Richard Hills with a view to bringing the Irish Open here under a two or three year plan,” said Farren, who looks after the interests of a 1,400-strong membership that straddles both sides of the border.

“We have a new 120 bed hotel coming on stream here in 2010 or 2011, which will be perfect timing as far as we are concerned for a lead-in to the Irish Open.

“Obviously we work hand in glove with Royal Portrush as partners in North & West Coast Links and we are very close neighbours. They are of the same line of thinking as we are. What’s good for us is good for them and vice versa.

“So both of us have approached both Governments and tourism authorities with regard to a proposal we have made to the European Tour. I have to say that we’ve been told we are pressing all the right buttons. It’s just a question of that old nutmeg - the pounds, shillings and pence.”

In this case it’s euro and cent as well and finding the estimated €5 million cost of staging a European Tour event with a prize fund of at least €2.5 million will depend on the backing of Fáilte Ireland in the south and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board in the six counties.

Given the positive feedback he has received from the Department of Sport and Tourism and the European Tour, Farren is convinced that the idea is “a goer” following the highly successful cross-border staging of last year’s World Rally Championship round, which was financed in part by both Failte Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Around 250,000 spectators generated an estimated €40 million for the North-west region as the event visited Sligo, Fermanagh, Donegal, Leitrim, Tyrone, Roscommon and Cavan.

Ballyliffin is remote in a Dublin context but with Derry just a 40 minute drive away and with 13,000 hotel beds available in the area, Failte Ireland’s North-West tourism officer Martin Donnelly believes the Irish Open fits in well with the overall tourism strategy for the area.

“Both governments want to drive cross-border cooperation forward so we are trying to take advantage of that from a tourism perspective,” Donnelly said.

“We are going for a project that is big enough on a cross-border basis to attract international visitors as well. So we are partnering up with the northern authorities to deliver that international class product.”