The European Tour is keeping its fingers crossed that the drawing power of Rory McIlroy and world No 9 Rickie Fowler — with the promise of more big names to come — will boost the chances of ending the long wait for a title sponsor for the Irish Open.
Bereft of a big name sbacker since 3 pulled the plug in 2010 and Failte Ireland started reducing its investement, Royal County Down will play host from May 28-31 with expectations sky high that it can be one of the most memorable editions of the historic event in years.
McIlroy's Midas touch has been in evidence since it was announced in September that his charitable foundation, The Rory Foundation, will become the official tournament host from 2015.
The world No 1, who is set to claim the Race to Dubai for the second time in three years this week, confirmed in the emirate yesterday that close pal Fowler will be at the famous Newcastle links next year.
Whatever about the possiblity that Tiger Woods, Billy Horschel, Keegan Bradley or even Dustin Johnson could touch down at Royal County Down, the presence of Fowler and McIlroy alongside some European stars should be enough to stir considerable commercial interest.
At least, that's the hope of the European Tour's commercial director, James Finnigan, who has been busy until now working on the Ryder Cup and the extended sponsorship deals for the Scottish Open.
"It’s a massive boost for the event," Finnigan said at Jumeirah Golf Estates ahead of the season ending DP World Tour Championship, Dubai. "Those two players coming to play in the Irish Open sends out a very positive message.
"It shows the commitment of Rory in terms of his intentions to develop the field and, of course, it makes sponsors sit up and take notice that the world’s best golfers are coming to play the Irish Open next year."
The phone has not been ringing off the hook with offers of sponsorship when Finnigan puts his mind to it, he will have more ammunition in terms of selling the prospective field to sponsors that any Irish Open promoter ever.
"Well, unfortunately, in my line of work, the phone doesn’t ring, you’ve got to try and find them and we’ve been very focussed on delivering the Ryder Cup and, personally, I’ve been involved in the Scottish Open and Aberdeen Asset Management and the Scottish Government’s decision to extend through to 2020," he said.
"Now that this announcement is in the public domain, I think it’s going to give sponsors a reason to be more interested in the Irish Open. To have the World No 1 headlining the event and Rickie Fowler, his close friend who played there in the Walker Cup in 2007, I think it’s going to be a remarkable event there next year and, hopefully, it’ll stimulate more interest from sponsors."
The announcement of Fowler's participation, which was first mentioned by McIlroy during the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, is the first in a series of player announcements by the world No 1 and the Tour.
"That is the intention," Finnigan said. "As you know, he’s a remarkable golfer and a remarkable person and I don’t think he’s finished with Rickie Fowler coming to play. I think there’ll be others in the pipeline."
Whether McIlroy is quietly investing some of his own money in the event is not in the public domain just yet but it's ony a secondary concern for the Tour.
"It’s not about money," Finnigan explained. "Rory’s commitment to the Irish Open is much more than money. He’s emotionally attached to the Irish Open. He wants to develop it in terms of the players that come play and they way it is positioned on the European Tour. Rory’s money is a private matter. I’m not allowed to comment on it and I don’t intend to comment on it."
How Failte Ireland plan to do their bit for IRish golf and tourism through the IRish Open remains to be seen in the light of the semi-State body's reduced investement at Fota Island last year.
"We have meetings lined up before Christmas to meet with Failte Ireland so it’s work in progress," Finnigan said. "I’m sure today’s announcement would encourage them to be involved because we believe the Irish Open is a very important way of showcasing Ireland on the global stage. To have the World No 1 involved in the Irish Open sends out a very strong message to Failte Ireland and the Irish Government."
Whoever turns up, the clash of McIlroy and Fowler is a moutwatering one considering their friendship and history.
The 25-year old Californian was a member of the US Walker Cup side that beat a McIlroy-led Great Britain and Ireland team at the world famous Newcastle links just over seven year ago.
They met in the foursomes on day two with Fowler and Horschel beating McIlroy and Jonny Caldwell 2 and 1 in the Holywood star's final event as an amateur which the Americans eventually won 12½-11½.
More recently, Fowler got the better of McIlroy in a playoff to win his maiden PGA Tour title in the 2012 Quail Hollow Championship.
The Ulsterman got his revenge this year by holding off the American's challenge on the back nine to win The Open and the US PGA before thrashing him 5 and 4 in the Ryder Cup singles.
McIlroy's search for additional players for the field is likely to focus on his Ryder Cup team mates and that outstanding '07 US Walker Cup side — FedEx Cup winner Horschel, runner up Chris Kirk, former US Open champion Webb Simpson or PGA Tour winner Kyle Stanley are the obvious targets.
As for Woods, a world class venue like Royal County Down may prove tempting for the 14-time major winner, who is now friendly with the Irish star.
Fowler will be a great addition to the field, especially after this season's performances.
While he joined Woods and Jack Nicklaus as only the third player to finish in the top five in all four Majors in a single season, McIlroy has four major wins by the same age.
Still, their back nine battles for the The Open and US PGA this summer are fresh in the memory, as are their clashes in September's Ryder Cup.
McIlroy and Sergio Garcia fought back to claim half a point against Fowler and his partner Jimmy Walker in the Friday afternoon foursomes at Gleneagles before McIlroy then produced a sensational performance to defeat Fowler 5 and 4 in the singles.
McIlroy said: “I am delighted that Rickie has decided to add the Irish Open to his schedule next year. I really look forward to him joining me at Royal County Down, one of the world’s finest links courses.
“Rickie’s performances in the Majors and The Ryder Cup this year showed that he is not only one of the top players in the world, but also one of the most watchable.
"I know the Irish crowds will really take to him and enjoy seeing him in action next May. He was one of the first people I thought of when the Rory Foundation became the official host of the Irish Open, and his presence in the field will only add to tournament’s prestige.
“We have become good friends since we played at Royal County Down in the Walker Cup in 2007, so it will be special for us both to go back there. It would also be great if we could both be in contention towards the end, just like in the Majors this year.
"I think Rickie’s decision to play also demonstrates the international appeal of Ireland’s top courses and confirms why we are keen for the Irish Open to showcase them.”
Fowler said: “When Rory told me the Irish Open was going to Royal County Down I was really keen to play because of the special memories we have there, and also because it is such a great course. It’s amazing what the players from that Walker Cup have gone on to achieve in the years since we played there, so I’m sure Rory and I will have plenty to reminisce about.
“Rory and I have obviously become good friends I think it is cool what he is trying to do with the Irish Open through the Rory Foundation, so I’m looking forward to being a part of it. It would be neat to think that we could maybe both be battling it out again at Royal County Down next summer, just like we did in the Majors this year.”
Royal County Down Golf Club was recently voted fourth on Golf Digest’s 2014 list of the World’s Top 100 Courses, underlining its reputation on the global golfing stage.
It last hosted the Irish Open in 1939, when Englishman, Arthur Lees, was crowned champion, while the Newcastle links also hosted The Senior Open Championship on three occasions from 2000-2002 - won by home favourite Christy O’Connor Jnr, Australian Ian Stanley and Japan’s Noboru Sugai respectively. One of the major beneficiaries of The Rory Foundation, the Cancer Fund for Children, is located in Newcastle, just a few miles from Royal County Down.
Tickets to see Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler as part of the world class field in the 2015 Irish Open are on sale now, with substantial discounts available as part of an early bird ticket offer that end on December 31. For more information, and for details of hospitality packages available, visit www.irishopen.ie or www.europeantour.com/tickets, or by call +44 (0)800 023 2557.