Irish professional golfers were in action in at least four countries on three continents yesterday from the Kruger National Park in South Africa and tropical Malaysia to the Land of the Rising Sun and the southern United States. Back home the government of Northern Ireland was promising to do all its power to make sure the world comes to Ireland - specifically to Portrush - for a major tournament in 2013.
Many hope The Open will return for the first time since 1951 but while that is still just a pipe dream, it seems likely that the Irish Open will be staged at Royal Portrush in two years’ time following the publication of the Stormont Executive’s programme for government on Thursday.
A pledge to bring a major golf tournament to Northern Ireland - basically, a promise of cash - is one of more than 70 commitments made and tourism minister Arlene Foster believes a successful staging of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush will boost the chances of the Open Championship returning to the venue.
“We’re looking at bringing the Irish Open to Portrush,” the minister said at Royal Portrush yesterday. “That is very much a probability in the near to medium future.
“That will showcase Royal Portrush in a way which will make it easier for us to get the British Open here. Once the R&A can see that we can organise an event like the Irish Open, they will be looking at us in a more meaningful way.
“That’s what we need to do. To stage - if you like - some of the intermediate championships before we go for the big one. We’re very much working on that. We’ve been in negotiations with Royal Portrush. I’m here today having a chat with them again and I will continue to do that.”
Whatever about The Open returning to Portrush, it appears certain now that the funds will be made available to host an Irish Open north of the border for the first time since Eric Brown won at Belvoir Park in 1953. Sixty years would be a nice round number in 2013.
With Northern Ireland producing three major winners over the past 18 months in Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, the government in Belfast is determined to cash in Northern Ireland’s golfing fame and bring in more tourists.
Yesterday, it was the Irish who were the tourists - at the Q-School in the US, at European Tour events in South Africa and Malaysia and on the Japan Golf Tour, where McDowell opened with a level par 71 in the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament at Phoenix Segaia Resort in Miyazaki.
That left him tied for 30th place, five strokes behind leaders Tetsuya Haraguchi and Taniguchi Tanihara, who fired five under 66’s to lead by a stroke from Tomohiro Kondo.
American Ricky Barnes and last week’s Singapore Open winner, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño were tied for fourth after 68’s, two shots off the pace, with Offaly’s Shane Lowry a shot further back after a 69.
Lowry tied for third on his debut in the Dunlop Phoenix event in 2009, the year he sensationally won the Irish Open as an amateur.
The burly midlander went to the turn in level par and came home in two under 33 in a round featuring four birdies and two bogeys.
McDowell was two over after nine holes but while he birdied the 10th, 12th and 15th, he bogeyed the 186-yard 17th in his first appearance in the event since 2002.
With Padraig Harrington just a shot off the lead in the Iskandar Johor Open after a 64, it was a tougher day for Paul Cutler as he opened with a 78 in the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa.
The Portstewart man, who turned professional after September’s Walker Cup, made his first cut in the pro ranks in Singapore last week.