Padraig Harrington believes the commitment of world No 1 Rory McIlroy in next year’s Irish Open is another huge step towards putting the event back on the global golfing map.
Wearing his hat as Irish golf’s top tourism ambassador, the Dubliner is convinced that the hottest player on the planet will build on this year’s record-breaking staging at Royal Portrush and make Ireland the epicentre of world golf when the event returns to the Montgomerie Course at Carton House from June 27-30.
“We were a top Premiership team for some time but we intend to get back up there,” Harrington said when asked about the Irish Open’s mid-table standing in terms of European Tour prize funds.
“You’ve got Rory McIlroy playing already. I’m sure if you read some of the articles this week, you know how much it costs to get Rory to play an event.
“He’s playing in the Irish Open for free because he loves to play in the Irish Open. Already the event is on a winner.
“Rory has created so much of a buzz around the world that he’s wanted in every tournament there is yet he’s already committed to the Irish Open – what a guarantee that is!
“There is only one professional event in Ireland. That’s your only opportunity to see Rory play golf. So for spectators, that’s a must.
“Obviously, there’s many more Irish professionals and many will have their favourites but, for sure, Rory is an unbelievable draw and the fact that he’s already committed to the Irish Open is a big deal.”
Harrington was referring to reports that McIlroy can now command a $2m appearance fee that was once the sole domain of Tiger Woods.
And there’s no doubt that the 23-year old Ulsterman’s bid for his first Irish Open crown will draw millions of worldwide viewers and pack the Maynooth venue, which hosts the event on a summer date following two weather-plagued stagings in 2005 and 2006.
This summer’s sellout Irish Open at Royal Portrush raised the bar for Carton House. But Harrington sees that as a good thing, rather than a negative.
“I think the success of the Irish Open at Killarney and Portrush is exactly what the event needs. It needed to be put back on the map and the buzz that was created in those last two events should be carried into Carton House.
“Yeah they’ve a lot to live up to but Carton is adjacent to Dublin and should be the perfect venue, it should be a winner. Yes, they’ve a lot to live up to but the success before should be a help going forward. I’d rather see the Irish Open building every year. That’s the key. Why would they want to be competing with mediocrity?
“Portrush was the top event last year. That’s a great thing. I’d rather reach for a higher standard than an average one. The Irish Open the last couple of years has come back from strength to strength. We feel the buzz, we know when everyone has a good time and tend to play up to that.
“It is great that it is going back to Carton House which has hosted the Irish Open in the past. It is a great venue, fantastic venue, really close to Dublin city, beautiful clubhouse and a fantastic championship golf course.
“It never had a great run before - never got the weather there - so I am delighted to see it back on a better date.
“We’ve been calling for a summer date for years and hopefully we will see the true Monty Course as it was designed - a fast running golf course.
“It’s ideal and should be a real home to the Irish Open in Dublin. It’s an enclosed estate that will get the crowds in and everybody should enjoy themselves at a magnificent venue.
“The golf course itself is a championship course that is well able to cater for the players. It is one of those courses where the tournament director has to go a little bit easy on us that week. He could make it very difficult for us so they end up giving us some easy pin positions so we don’t look too bad.
“The golf course is amply able to take the Championship and the venue is a fantastic venue. I really hope it gets everything it deserves this time around and gets the weather.”
The Mallaghan family, which owns the resort, was keen to take the Irish Open to the sister O’Meara course following the construction of a new first and 18th holes. But they opted not to take the chance, as Conor Mallaghan explained:
“We used the opportunity to apply for planning permission and were granted it to build the first and 18th nearer the clubhouse. We said we’d have a look to see if weather conditions and build conditions were favourable it might have been successful.
“But Irish weather’s too unpredictable to take that risk. It was best summed-up by [Staging Director] Antonia [Beggs] when she asked, ‘Why would you take that risk when you’ve got the Monty sitting beside you?’
“The building of two new holes on the O’Meara has been on the agenda since we opened the golf course. It was built towards a stand-alone clubhouse on the far end of the estate which never happened, so we have to bring people to and from the first and 18th.
“I would hope that we will host it on the O’Meara in the not too distant future. We believe we can become the Dublin home for the Irish Open. It would be great to see it back on the O’Meara in 2014 or beyond and we’ll certainly be talking to the Tour about that one.
“For the moment, we want to make the event the best it can be on the Montgomerie and we certainly have learnt our lessons from 2005 and 2006 in terms of set-up. The course was quite young at that time and it’s matured greatly since then. We hosted the European Amateur Championships in August and it played like a dream. We got great weather and the scoring reflected that.
“We have a 165 bed hotel now but we were effectively building site back then. We’ve been talking to the town of Maynooth about building a festival around it, getting the shopkeepers and the pubs in the town involved. We learned a lot from Killarney, they were remarkable. I think you’ll see a very different event from 2006.”
This year’s return to Royal Portrush was an unprecedented success for the European Tour, which made a €1m profit after 130,785 fans paid in to see McIlroy, Harrington, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, who have won seven majors between them since 2007.
No fewer than 112,280 attended the four tournament days - up 27,101 on last year’s attendance at Killarney.
And with the Tour facing staging costs of between €4 and €4.5 million with plans for “a small increase” in this year’s €2m prize fund, they are banking on McIlroy to draw close to 100,000 fans to the muscular Montgomerie Course near Maynooth for the first appearance of all four major winners in the Dublin area. As George O’Grady explained:
“It broke even at Killarney both years and we now want to move this up. We’ve had good feedback from these sponsors to back it, though none want to become the title sponsors. If there was a big title sponsor they might have pulled back themselves. It’s distinctly sustainable as long as we keep the government at no worse than where they are now.
“It makes sense that we don’t do ego trips on the prizemoney. It’s sustainable. It will be higher than last year. We made a profit last year, a good one, not a huge one, it has covered a few years of investment I might say.”
Underwritten by the Tour and Failte Ireland for the past five years, Fáilte Ireland Chairman, Redmond O’Donogue, sees no reason why government support - €1.5m including VAT next year - will not be forthcoming for the foreseeable future.
“Over the past five years, nobody [in Government] has demurred,” Mr O’Donoghue said. “You only have to argue on the basis of competitiveness. What self-respecting country that is serious about golf doesn’t have a national open?
“Ireland is to golf what New Zealand is to rugby. Since we were in Carton House last time, Irish golfers have won seven Major Championships, which is fantastic. You have to have an Irish Open.
“It’s a lot of money in a difficult time but it’s an investment and everyone can see the benefit. It makes good business sense and is right for the country.”
The event will once again but run on a public-private basis with a host of supporting sponsors such as Ballygowan, BMW, Emirates, Heineken, Moy Park, Rolex and Waterford Crystal all happy to tap in to the Dublin market.
“We had steadfast support from Governments on both sides,” he said of this year’s staging at Royal Portrush. “If we can take a good financial gate, that becomes a realistic part of the whole sponsorship package and we can reflect that with the prizemoney we’re going to pay. We’re going to be up on last year.
A move back north of the border is likely in the future How soon that happens depends on the appetite in the North and the desires of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, which is also a stakeholder in the event. As Mr O’Grady explained:
“Being able to pull all of Ireland together without having to compete with a tournament at The K Club or elsewhere on the island is significant. But the big thing is being able to market Ireland abroad.
“The North has said we’ll be welcome back at the right time, I don’t think they’ll necessarily want to host the tournament every year. We will be going back to the North. I think the Taoiseach sees one Ireland in terms of golf and the great courses North and South.”
As for the long search for a title sponsor since “3” pulled out at the end of 2010, Mr O’Grady added:
“When one sponsor creates a great financial profile for the tournament but eventually pulls out for their own marketing reasons, that is not sustainable growth. If we can market this tournament the same as Portrush … Killarney was immensely successful in creating the buzz … the gate went forward in both places and we want to get it up higher again.
“All the smaller sponsors wanted us to come back to Dublin as well, to use the capital city. We’re planning for a big crowd.”
Mr O’Donoghue added: “I think a combination of being next to a metropolis of 1.5million people and the heightened awareness of the success of the Irish and particularly Rory, I’d be a little disappointed if we didn’t beat Killarney, even though Killarney was fantastic.”