Pádraig Harrington has gifted Irish golf tourism the ultimate mulligan by agreeing to front Fáilte Ireland’s new €1.5m worldwide “marketing blitz” free of charge.
The 38-year old Dubliner was the face of tourism body’s global golf strategy for three years until 2007, when it was decided that his contract - reputed to have cost the taxpayer just €180,000 a year - was simply not offering value for money.
The decision to cut Harrington loose turned out to be one of the greatest blunders in the history of Irish sports sponsorship as Bank of Ireland stepped in with €750,000 over three years and got an incredible return on its investment.
Not only did Harrington repay them within days of signing the contract by becoming the first home winner of the Irish Open for 25 years, he went on to win three majors in the space of 13 months at a time when the number of overseas golfing visitors to these shores was falling dramatically.
Fortunately for Failte Ireland, Harrington’s success allowed him to secure sponsorship deals with FTI and Wilson Golf worth over €20m and can now afford to help Irish golf tourism in its hour of need by offering his services free of charge.
“It’s not a commercial transaction,” Harrington said at a function at Failte Ireland HQ in Dublin, where he was announced as Ireland’s Golf Ambassador for the next 12 months. “Basically my sponsors pay me enough that I can do something like this. I feel good about doing something good and I am really delighted that I can help out.
“It is not a huge burden on me in terms of time and it won’t affect my ability to play golf. My sponsors are essentially covering this. They all look after me so well that I don’t need to be taxing the Irish government at this time.”
Despite government cut backs across the board, golf promotion has received €5m in funding this year with €1.5m dedicated to international marketing and around €2m of a further €3.5m being invested the events such as the 3 Irish Open, the Irish Seniors Open, the AIB Ladies Irish Open and the 2011 Solheim Cup.
Redmond O’Donoghue, Chairman of Fáilte Ireland, conceded that the foot had been taken off the gas in terms of Ireland’s golf tourism strategy since the 2006 Ryder Cup drive.
“The 2006 Ryder Cup was fantastic and maybe there was a small vacuum,” Mr O’Donoghue said. “After the 2006 Ryder Cup, a deep breath was taken and a lot of things came to pass as well. We probably lost the run of ourselves in terms of pricing and then in comes the biggest recession of modern times.”
Harrington’s image will be used to front a multi-media campaign entitled, “Time to Play” and Failte Ireland hopes to unveil an on-line booking system for that will make it easier for potential visitors to book tee-times.
Keith McCormack, Head of Golf Tourism at Fáilte Ireland, is delighted that Harrington has agreed to come on board.
He said: “We needed this focal point - something internationally recognisable for consumers and a rallying point for the Irish golf industry as well.
“I think Padraig does all of that. We have a new brand that is all about being warm, infectious and unassuming. Padraig is all of those things. It is the perfect match.”
Harrington will tee it up in next week’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth for the first time since 2007 insisting he is fully recovered from the neck injury that upset his perception of alignment and caused him to miss the cut in last week’s Players Championship at Sawgrass.
Harrington said: “I am thrilled about where my game is. The weaker parts of my game over the last number of years I feel have improved immensely so it is a question of making sure the putting is as good as ever. And it was great yesterday when my coach Paul Hurrion was over.”
Harrington also addressed the recent controversy over his TV campaign for laser eye surgery clinic Optical Express.
It was reported earlier this week that the ad had been withdrawn from the UK airwaves because of a complaint to the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority that he had had his surgery done by a different clinic.
But Harrington confirmed that the wording of the ad was simply being amended, explaining: “In 1999 I had laser eye surgery in Harley Street, which is an Optical Express owned facility. In 2002, I had another laser eye surgery on Wellington Road in Dublin, which is where Optical Express is now. I was sitting in the same rooms three weeks ago, having treatment by Optical Express.
“So I am very happy to endorse Optical Express …. and I am having treatment with them at the moment.”