From a famine to a feast — three Irish Open venues announced in 80 days; Trump lurking for 2016?

From a famine to a feast — three Irish Open venues announced in 80 days; Trump lurking for 2016?
Dr Peter Brown, captain Royal County Down; Arleen Foster, Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister; European Tour CEO George O'Grady; Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson First Minister ML;  Alan Clarke and Lough Erne's John O'Neill at the Irish Open 2015 announcement, Royal County Down.  Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Dr Peter Brown, captain Royal County Down; Arleen Foster, Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister; European Tour CEO George O'Grady; Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson First Minister ML;  Alan Clarke and Lough Erne's John O'Neill at the Irish Open 2015 announcement, Royal County Down.  Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

A week might be a long time in politics but when it comes to future of The Irish Open — and a possible Northern Ireland staging of the British Open — changes are coming equally thick and fast.

Like the old joke about buses taking an age to come before three arrive at the same time, the Irish Open has swung from a state of almost annual uncertainty to the far end of the spectrum. 

Where we once feared yearly for its future  following the loss of title sponsors "3" in 2010, the venues for three of next four championships have all been announced within 80 days.

Following the official confirmation in January that Cork’s Fota Island Resort will host this year’s Irish Open from June 19-22, the European Tour confirmed that the 2015 event will be played at Royal County Down from May 28-31 with the Lough Erne Resort in Co Fermanagh getting the nod for 2017.

Next year's end of May date has been confirmed because there are just four weeks between the US Open and the Open Championship and top Irish players such as Rory McIlroy — the “catalyst” of the move to Royal County Down according to the European Tour’s Chief Executive, George O’Grady — would find it more convenient to head from the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth to the following week’s Irish Open.

The venue for the 2016 Irish Open remains up in the air and while O’Grady confirmed that Fota Island are currently the front runners, US billionaire Donald Trump may be a player if his plans to completely revamp Doonbeg get approval and the project can be completed in time.

While all of this was being thrashed out with the governments in Dublin and Belfast continuing to commit public money to support  cross border stagings of Irish Open for the good of the island’s golf tourism product, talks with the R&A to bring The Open Championship back to Northern Ireland for the first time since in 1951 are now “beyond the early stages” according to First Minister, Peter Robinson.

The Irish Open can take much for the credit for that as the sellout 2012 edition at Royal Portrush, which attracted record crowds of more than 130,000, proved that putting Royal Portrush back on the Open rota is more than a pipedream.

A date of 2019 has been spoken about openly by European Tour players and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, went out of his way at Royal County Down yesterday to insist that while there are infrastructural problems to be ironed out, this is more than just talk.

“We have the courses that may meet their requirements,” he said of the discussions with the R&A. “We may have some infrastructure problems to address but without betraying any confidences I would say we are well past the early stages of discussions. I am prepared to make every effort that I can to bring The Open to Northern Ireland.”

There was much disquiet from sponsors HSBC when The Open was played at men-only Muirfield last year and with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews set to vote in September on admitting women members for the first time in its 260-year history, pressure will build on Muirfield, Royal St George’s and Royal Troon to follow suit.

They are part of the current nine-course Open rotation but the staging of the Irish Open at Royal County Down could also put set up the world famous Newcastle course, ranked No 4 in the world by Golf Digest, as an Open Championship rival to Royal Portrush.

As one seasoned Royal County Down observer said yesterday: “When Graeme McDowell came here for a friendly game last year, he walked off the 18th and said, ‘I’ll always be a Portrush man but you just have to put up the grandstands and you could have The Open here tomorrow.’ ”

Many wondered how Royal County Down could host an Irish Open for the first time since 1935 given that crowds were limited to just 12,000 for the 2007 Walker Cup matches.

However, Irish Open Championship Director Antonia Beggs confirmed that there is ample room for at least 20,000 fans a day with plans to build grandstands for at least 5,000 spectators.

“There are a lot of natural paths,” she said. “It is actually very good for bringing people around safely and there is still excellent viewing. The Irish Open starts at 7.30 in the morning with tee times until 2.30 and is not just four matches like the Walker Cup. 

“We can rope it and marshal it properly. Over the last 10-15 years we have invested so much more in healthy and safety that we can get more people around than in the past and we will have more grandstand seats here than at past Irish Opens”

Unless a title sponsor emerges, the multi-tiered, public-private sponsorship model will remain in place for the foreseeable future with the north-south rota set to continue.

As for the field at Royal County Down, it appears that McIlroy has been working behind the scenes to persuade his pals on the US Tour to make the trip next year.

Speaking from Houston, McIlroy said: "Royal County Down is a golf course that I have really fond memories of having played the Walker Cup there in 2007 and I grew up not too far away. 

"It is great to see the Irish Open back on a links course. And also for the Irish Open to be coming back North [in 2017] at the Lough Erne Resort, where I was the touring professional for a number of years.

"It will present a really good test for the guys so it’s a great announcement, great for Irish golf as a whole and I look forward to teeing it up at both venues."