The Phoenix Nature of the Irish Open

The Irish Open which concluded in Portstewart at the weekend was decided by birdies and eagles but can also be considered to be a real sporting Phoenix in terms of how it has been revived over the past six years.

Today it stands tall among European Tour events with a prize fund of €7 million and a field containing Major Winners, World ranked players from across the world and the Olympic Champion Justin Rose.

It is part of the Tour’s new Rolex Series of premium events and if tournaments could walk with a swagger that’s exactly what the Irish Open would be doing.

Back in 2011 the event took place at Killarney without a sponsor after Three decided to switch from Golf to the Republic of Ireland football team. The FAI’s gain at the time was very much golf’s loss.

The prize fund had halved to €1.5 million, the attraction to players beyond our own collection of stars was less apparent and there was a danger that the Irish Open might not survive.

There were a number of elements though that kept it afloat and created the platform for where it is today.

The first of these was the Irish Government who stood firm for just the right length of time in backing the event through its tourism agencies.

Golf tourism is more valuable than almost any other and there was a business case for keeping this showcase event alive. It was never intended though to be a replacement for commercial backing and it was a big call to stay when others had exited.

Second was the base of spectators that showed up to watch the Open in numbers that were unheard of across the vast majority of events.

The spiral of falling prize money and fading ‘star appeal’ was ignored by fans who turned up to the tune of over 85,000, up four per cent on the previous year.

These kind of things never go unnoticed and the European Tour management was willing to work closely with local promoters to keep the tournament on the schedule.

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Perhaps the key element was bringing the open North of the Border in 2012. It was the start of a rotation policy which has seen it bounce between the North and South since then.

Royal Portrush drew a crowd of 112,000. It was the first European Tour event beyond the Open Championship and the Ryder Cup to completely sell out. Discover Northern Ireland helped to share the load with the Irish Government and the prize fund began to rise again.

As much as anything, bringing the tournament to Northern Ireland engaged Rory McIlroy in a way that is rarely seen among the elite of sport.

While Carton House and Fota hosted in 2013 and 2014 Rory and his team were working away towards the return North of the Border to his home town club at Royal County Down in 2015.

The Rory Foundation became a cornerstone backer and brought a halo effect with it.

McIlroy’s relationships in the middle east sparked a relationship with Colm McGloughlin of Dubai Duty Free who stepped in as the first headline commercial sponsor in five years and that was the final piece in the jigsaw that led the Irish Open to that promised land of inclusion as part of the Rolex Series.

The crowds that have packed the galleries all this week still play a crucial role in this being seen as one of the real highlights of European Golf.

McIlroy’s victory last year at the K Club in such spectacular fashion was among the golfing stories of the year on a global scale and his donating the prize money to his Foundation for onward distribution to local charities was another gold star for the event.

The size of the tented village and corporate hospitality areas has doubled over the past three years, another measure of the heightened appeal the event has among those for whom creating a right impression makes a big difference.

Northern Ireland has come alive this week with celebrities like Jamie Dornan and Pep Guardiola drawing interest and global attention to the north Antrim coast.

Hideki Matsuyama, the world number two’s presence in the field will open up Ireland as a golfing venue to the lucrative far eastern market, further enhancing the long term viability and sustainibility for the Open.

Backers like Bank of Ireland, Heineken, BMW and Emirates are on board and Dubai Duty Free are expressing delight at how their investment has yielded such a positive result.

The Dubai Duty Free Irish open Presented by the Rory Foundation is something of a mouthful. These days it is more one of caviar and champagne though than the fish and chips it was in danger of becoming only a few short years ago.

This article was first published in the Sunday Business Post


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