Ballyliffin launches joint bid for the Irish Open

By Brian Keogh

The stunning Old Links at Ballyliffin will host the Irish Seniors Open later this month but if the energetic membership that has turned the remote Donegal links into an internationally renowned golfing destination has its way, the club’s muscular Glashedy Links will stage The Irish Open as part of an innovative cross-border deal with Royal Portrush from 2011.

With Adare Manor still scheduled to stage the event for the third and last time next season, Ballyliffin (2011) and Royal Portrush (2010) have made joint proposition to Fáilte Ireland, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the European Tour to fill the breach going forward and host the Irish Open on Donegal’s breathtaking Inishowen Peninsula and Antrim’s Causeway Coast in alternate years.

The principal difficulty is financing the estimated €5 million cost of staging a European Tour event with a prize fund of at least €2.5 million. But with the backing of Fáilte Ireland in the south and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board in the six counties, the opportunity is there to showcase Ireland’s leading links courses to the world and guarantee the seemingly tenuous future of the tournament.

Ballyliffin’s General Manager, John Farren, has overseen major changes at the club in recent years, including the acclaimed redesign of the Old Links by six-time Major winner Nick Faldo as well as the installation of a €1.5 million irrigation system.

Despite the demands of a burgeoning cross-border membership of close to 1,400, the 36-hole facility’s fame and value for money is such that it attracted 20,000 green fee paying golfers last year.

Around 50 percent of the membership resides in Northern Ireland and buoyed by the club spirit that saw the Ballyliffin pioneers cut the fairways with their own lawnmowers back on the in 1940s, they are fully determined that the staging of the Irish Seniors Open from June 20th to 22nd will be a curtain-raiser for the Irish Open itself.

“Initially when we went for this tournament, we were going for the Irish Open,” explained general manager Farren. “I was approaching [Ryder Cup director] Richard Hills with a view to bringing the Irish Open here under a two or three year plan.

“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.”

Farren describes the reaction from both the Irish government and the European Tour as “very, very positive” but stressed that securing public funds would be key for a club that is not awash with funds following the €1.5 million irrigation project.

“I firmly believe that it is a goer,” Farren added. “There is a precedent there with the World Rally Championship held here last year and which was financed on both sides of the border. There’s no reason why we can’t tap into a similar arrangement.

“Failing government involvement, there is enough determination here to step up to the plate, though that is not a situation we envisage happening.

“We’re still running to a pretty tight budget, particularly as we have just invested a million and a half in a new irrigation system on the Old Links. Yet there’s no question that without it, we wouldn’t have been able to host this tournament with the weather we’ve had recently and a few other clubs around here are having serious problems as a result of the dry spell.”

Ballyliffin’s decision to step in a help the European Seniors Tour in difficult economic times has created a deep well of goodwill between Donegal and Wentworth that will do no harm to the club’s Irish Open bid.

A precedent was set by Adare Manor, which hosted three editions of the AIB Irish Seniors Open from 2002 as a precursor to securing a three-year deal to stage the Irish Open.

Ballyliffin’s Glashedy course has already hosted two top line professional events, including the dual badge 2002 North West of Ireland Open and the 1998 Donegal Ladies’ Open.

And the venue has attracted a top class field for the €450,000 Irish Seniors Open with major winners such as defending champion Costantino Rocca, Sandy Lyle and Sir Bob Charles joined by Des Smyth, Sam Torrance, Carl Mason and Irish stars Eamonn Darcy and Denis O’Sullivan.

“The European Tour have had a good feeling about this place for a long time, Farren added. “The tournaments we have held here had been good, though the weather had not been ideal at that time. Having said all that, the guys that have been here have lacked for nothing.

“I think the leap of faith that we have made in taking the tournament has been rewarded by the field. I’m absolutely delighted with the entry and I think that has a lot to do with links golf. The powers that be will have to learn from the field that has been attracted to us.”

Martin Donnelly, Fáilte Ireland’s tourism officer for the North West region, was heavily involved in the staging of Rally Ireland last November and sees the forthcoming Irish Seniors Open as a stepping stone to securing the Irish Open and giving tourism in the North West a major boost in an era when the east-west economic divide is becoming increasingly pronounced.

“We are struggling with tourism in rural Ireland so top class international events are one of the big ways of generating bed nights,” said Donnelly, who pointed out that there are more than 13,000 beds in the North West region. “Both governments want to drive cross-border cooperation forward so we are trying to take advantage of that from a tourism perspective.

“If you take our North West, which is Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan, we are working with Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh on these cross-border projects because we believe that from a product perspective, 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.

“We know the history of the Irish Open and its reputation on the European Tour has probably slipped somewhat in recent years. But that’s one of the reasons the European Open has been parked aside. To try and build the Irish Open up to somewhere near it was before.

“Somewhere like Ballyliffin, as a partner with Fáilte Ireland, is a superb opportunity to try and have a good chance to build up the Irish Open again.”