Paul McGinley insists the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open is "bigger than Rory McIlroy" but admits a date change could help it remain one of Europe's most attractive titles.
The Dubliner concedes that putting together a top quality field in an era when players have all the leverage is "a tough process" for even the biggest PGA Tour events.
But he's confident he will succeed in bringing a sprinkling of stars to Lahinch from July 4-7 after clocking up thousands of air miles and approaching every member of the world's top 50—including Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson—over the last 10 months.
"All the power at the moment in golf is sitting with the players," McGinley said. "The bigger the player, the more power they have because they can make or break a tournament in whether they want to play or not.
"You are not going to get all of the players so what you have to do is pinpoint three or four or five big strong names and if you can do that, you are going to have a successful tournament."
With all four majors crammed into just 101 days this year, only the Grand Slam events, the World Golf Championships and The Players can command a constellation of stars.
The exception could prove to be this year's BMW PGA at Wentworth, which has moved from May to September when the PGA Tour's FedExCup playoffs are over.
That may be the way forward for the Irish Open, but fans can still look expect a strong field at Lahinch where there are high hopes that Justin Rose will make an appearance and European Tour members such as Patrick Reed or Xander Schauffele may be tempted to join Tommy Fleetwood, Padraig Harrington, Danny Willett and Lee Westwood.
"We are going to have a strong field," McGinley said yesterday. "All things considered, we are going to be ahead of all reasonable expectations, and that's important.
"With Rory, I think we have taken the hit and moved on. The Irish Open is bigger than Rory McIlroy, and he'd be the first to admit that with all those great champions we have had in the past.
“Yeah, obviously Rory not coming is a big blow but we’re going to have some big names there, there’s no doubt about that, all household names. A lot of them still haven’t committed for various reasons but they’ve kind of assured me behind the scenes, ‘yes, I’m going to be playing’ and we’re going about making announcements in the next few months regarding them.”
Without no appearance money to draw the stars and with players still making up their minds about what to play before The Open at Royal Portrush and the following week's WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, it's a tough task to get players to commit early.
“As I say, a lot of guys are still, to be honest, a lot of them are still quite unsure as to what they’re doing, this condensed schedule and the playing of one big tournament every month, March, April, May, June, July, August, is making them go slowly but surely in terms of committing to any kind of event.
“So it’s hard to get them committed a long way out and as we get closer to the date they’ll be in a better position to say, ‘yes, now I can commit and I’m 100 per cent going’. So kind of that’s where we’re at.”
Given the annual speculation about the megastars such as Tiger Woods and, this year, Lahinch honorary member Phil Mickelson, McGinley has touched base with them all to let them know that this year’s Irish Open will be perfect preparation for The Open.
"I’ve spoken to Mark Steinberg for example regarding Tiger, and Notah Begay, who’s his friend," McGinley said, admitting he'd also approached Mickelson. "Like Tiger, it's unlikely but they are aware of it and I have reached out to them.
"The point is that everyone is aware of it and everyone has been contacted and we have to sit tight and wait.
"At the same time, I roll on with hosting one of the premier events in Europe. The Irish Open is the Irish Open. It's been going for years and years and will continue to go for years and years."
The so-called Links Swing, where the Irish and Scottish Opens precede The Open, has been more beneficial to Scotland than Ireland and McGinley admits that a date change may be the answer.
"Listen, the date is difficult obviously," McGinley said admitting that the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open was never going to give up the week before The Open to suit Ireland this year.
"Martin Gilbert runs one of the biggest companies in the world, Aberdeen Assets, is he really going to give up that date? He knows the value of that.
"He has put himself in that position a number of years ago, he puts a huge amount into golf, he is a huge part of the European Tour. You are not going to just go in an elbow him out because the Open happens to be in Ireland. He is not going to move, why should he?"
Given the strength of the PGA Tour in the middle of the year, McGinley knows a date change may be a good thing for the Irish Open.
"What is the perfect date?” he asked. “Should we look at maybe September in the future for an Irish Open date? That’s going to suit the players better, going to get even one or two more of the top players playing, that may well be.
"You look at the schedule at the moment, the European Tour against the PGA Tour, the PGA tour is obviously the dominant tour, the players are going to be prioritising the big events. Until the FedEx finishes in August, that is going to be a priority for a lot of the players is getting FedEx points and trying to win that $15 million.
"It creates a big problem before that but gives us a big opportunity after it. I certainly think the European Tour and Wentworth by all accounts is going to have a fabulous field this year because it is in September and the FedEx is well over at that stage.
"It is swings and roundabouts and everyone is feeling their way through this new schedule. It has made the Irish Open very tricky from my perspective. That is okay, I can handle that.
"It is important people don’t have too many expectations and understand that the players have a lot of leverage, they can make their own decisions, they have got a lot of choice."
He admits the European Tour is going to review the wisdom of the links swing but warns that it all comes down to player power, whatever is decided
"All the power at the moment in golf is sitting with the players, the bigger the player the more power they have because they can make or break a tournament in whether they want to play or not.
" As I say, you are not going to get all of the players so what you have to do is pinpoint three or four or five big strong names and if you can do that you are going to have a successful tournament.
"I mean, look at the PGA Tour, look at the Valspar this week, look at the Honda a few weeks ago, it is the oldest sponsor on the PGA Tour and they battled for a field, so many of the players lived in the area, 90 players living within the area and only half played the tournament even though it is on their doorstep.
"The tour are suffering from the same issue of the quality of the field. And the idea of thinking all the top players are going to turn up, that’s not applicable any more unless you are playing a Ryder Cup, a major or a WGC or The Players. That’s the reality of professional golf at the moment.”
Lahinch will attract big crowds with a festival atmosphere planned for an event that will be a superb advertisement for Irish tourism worldwide.
“Anyone who has been to Lahinch knows it's a party town,” McGinley said. “It's a village more than a town, full of character, full of great pubs, full of great craic, music, and when we decided that Lahinch was going to be the venue, the idea of creating a festival around it was what I thought would be really important and we are well on our way. That's something we can control.
“We are going to have music and big stages and pedestrians on the street. The local Gardai and Clare County Council, all those people have rowed in unbelievably behind us and I can't thank them enough for the support we have got. Every single request we have made, they have come back with a can-do answer, which has been terrific.
“The golf course itself, some people call it quirky but I don't think it is. It is not too dissimilar in terrain to what Portrush would be. We are going to align things with what we are going to have in Portrush in terms of green speeds and rough heights and I have told all the players that. As much as the Irish Open can stand on its own, I know they have an eye on The Open two weeks later and it is going to be really good prep.
“I’ve contacted everybody in the top 50 of the world rankings and certainly top people in the Race To Dubai but at the end of the day it’s up to them, whether they come or not.
“I think, in relative terms, it’s obviously not a Players Championship-quality field but all things considered, we’re in pretty good shape for what will be a great Irish Open and as brilliant golf course as we know.”
“It’s a difficult year this year with the condensed schedule, players are still feeling their way. A lot of players are still undecided, they want to get the Masters done before they look at the second part of the season so that’s kind of where we’re at. Everybody’s kind of feeling their way with this new very much condensed schedule.”
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