Killarney’s Killeen Course will be a tougher prospect for Rory McIlroy and Co. this time around when it hosts “The Irish Open presented by Discover Ireland” from July 28-31.
It’s bad news for the players ahead of an event that has seen its prize fund slashed in half - to just €1.5m - following the exodus of title sponsors “3” last year.
But the good news is that European Tour and Failte Ireland will bear the €3m-plus prize money and staging costs and ride out the storm ahead of what they hope will be a new, three-year title sponsorship announcement next season.
Whether it returns to Killarney for a third year remains to be seen but it will certainly be tough this year.
England’s Ross Fisher flirted with a 59 and eventually shot a 10-under par 61 in the second round en route to an 18-under total and a two-shot win over Padraig Harrington last year.
But Killarney’s general manager, Maurice O’Meara, believes the course will show more teeth this time around for an event that looks set to send the Kerry town into party mode for the August Bank holiday weekend.
“We’ve made some small changes to the course,” O’Meara said. “We’ve built a new first tee box 27 yards futher back and the total yardage will be 7,249 yards.”
That’s 88 yards longer than last year and O’Meara is delighted that a recent spell of rain has made the rough far more penal.
“We’ve also had a wet spell recently which has helped us grow the rough so the course will be playing a little more difficult this year than last year.”
Last year’s event received massive publicity as “3” advertised heavily in the months preceding the tournament before finally deciding to pull the plug and invest their cash in Irish soccer.
But while a European Tour official admitted that they are “behind the curve” on the ticket sales score having spent all year searching for a new sponsor (could UPS be ready to move?), Rory McIlroy has saved the day with his US Open win.
Killarney’s O’Meara said: “When Rory won the US Open it was like flicking on a switch. There’s a huge buzz in town about the Irish Open and we have the Killarney Summerfest running concurrently with the tournament.
“It’s also the 20th anniversary of the year Payne Stewart came to the Irish Open as the reigning US Open champion, so it is great to have Rory back and everyone is looking forward to it.”
The fans are expected to turn out in their droves in Killarney to see McIlroy, but the big picture also looks sunnier in terms of efforts to build the event with the introduction of a new backer.
With “3” pulling the sponsorship plug after just two years of its three year deal last year, the tournament prize fund has been slashed from €3 million to €1.5 million with the winner earning €250,000.
The total cost of staging the event is expected to exceed €3m but the European Tour’s chief executive, George O’Grady is confident that the tour can break even thanks to €1.25m in funding from Failte Ireland, its subsidiary sponsors and some unnamed, Irish business figures who are preparing to take an even greater role in the tournament next year.
The European Tour and Failte Ireland revealed that it came close to securing a new sponsorship deal this season but the lack of a generous lead-in time in terms of promotion prevented all parties from going ahead.
Redmond O’Donoghue, the Chairman of Failte Ireland, said: “We would be hopeful that we will have a corporate sponsor for succeeding years. We can’t promise it, but I believe we will because it is an outstandingly good event.
“I know it will answer the marketing objectives for some corporation and we will have a major title sponsor for the Irish Open before too long.
“Ireland’s economy is in a bunker - a fairly deep bunker - but the Irish have always been good at the recovery shots and I hope and pray that the Irish Open will be a superb recovery shot for the Irish economy.”
The European Tour has insisted in the past that it is not a benevolent organisation and that no event has a God-given right to exist in the current commercial climate.
Its Chief Executive, George O’Grady, won’t bail out the Irish Open indefinitely but conceded at the press conference at Failte Ireland HQ today that with the tourism body insisting it will remain committed to event come hell or high water, he would also remain on board.
O’Grady said: “The European Tour will remain committed to the Irish Open for as long as we possibly can and for as long as Ireland wants us.
“We have had a lot of sponsor interest but not in time to make it work this year, and a lot of other individuals becoming involved in the Irish Open and interested in moving it on for the future. We will look at whether this is the right date but without Failte Ireland’s drive, this tournament wouldn’t go forward.”
Confirming that the Irish Open will go ahead next year even if the proposed new title sponsor fails to materialise, O’Grady added: “With Failte Ireland saying we are definitely on for the future and if we don’t pull off some of our commercial objectives, we might stay around the same sort of [prize fund] level with some small increases.
“But with the kind of people we have got coming in behind us and sending the message that Ireland is open for business, for people with business in Ireland and those investors, we will go forward anyway. With a big global sponsor, it will go forward very quickly. We are definitely on.”
Keep an eye out for the list of participants in the Pro-Am this year if your wondering which Irish business figures are helping out behind the scenes.
Could horse-racing giant and multi-millionaire businessman JP McManus be involved? It certainly appears so.
“There are some people with global businesses that we were going to make more visible this year but there just wasn’t enough time,” O’Grady said. “It will be obvious (from the pro-am list who they are). I spent a lot of time going horse-racing with them. Their major visibility will be next year.”
The McIlroy effect has had an immediate spin off in terms of the pre-tournament Pro-Am with The Golf Channel taking up no fewer than five teams comprised of its executives and leading advertisers.
That’s partly because they were impressed with the stunning pictures they beamed around the US last year but also because of the huge interest that no exists in McIlroy’s exploits following his eight-shot US Open win earlier this month.
The event attracted 82,000 fans last year and the European Tour’s James Finnegan is hopeful that ticket sales will take off over the next four and a half weeks.
“Tickets are going fine but because we worked so hard trying to get a new sponsor on board, we are still behind the curve in advance ticket sales compared to last year,” he said.
“There is no doubt that ‘3’ spent an awful lot of money promoting their name and their association with the golf tournament, that’s why we are relying on today’s exercise and the promotion of being able to play with Rory McIlroy, the US Open champion, in the pro-am to drive ticket sales.”
As for the prospect of being left in the lurch by a potential sponsor next year, Failte Ireland chief O’Donoghue confirmed that his organisation would continue to fund the event.
“We would be very supportive again next year if we don’t get a commercial sponsor,” he said. “It’s a great product and should be easy-ish to sell, even in these stressful times. If we had had a little more time, we might have even done it this year.
“I could be proven wrong but I believe we will have a major title sponsor for the following three years until 2014.”
Turning to O’Grady, who was seated next to him, he added: “But if that didn’t happen, we would be as supportive again and I believe the European Tour would be. It is a huge fixture in Ireland’s golf calendar and a huge and very important fixture in the European golfing calendar.
“It may not be the richest event on the golf schedule but as Padraig Harrington said earlier today, there is more to life than just money and when the players come to Killarney to play golf this year, they get something extra. I saw them there with their spouses and kids last year and they loved every minute of it.”
Failte Ireland depends on the government for its funding and Michael Ring TD, Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport, made all the right noises with regard to future backing.
Speaking at today’s press conference about the government’s committment to golf and tourism, the Minister said: “This sends out a very loud message - Ireland is open for business and I have no doubt that you will get a major sponsor, particularly with the success of our Irish golfers.
“Golf is very important and it is money well spent. More than 150,000 people will come here to play golf this year and that brings in €110 million to the economy.”