Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Can we cash in on our status as capital of golf?

Political leaders here have been tripping over themselves to hail our latest superstar, but now they must market the province as a must-visit golfing destination, says Ed Curran

Darren Clarke has presented his Open Championship winning medal to his home golf club

Is it in the water? Is it in the genes? People must be asking all round the world, what it is that makes Northern Ireland so specially good at golf?

How come out of a population of only a million adults over the age of 18, we have produced three men such as Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, to add to Padraig Harrington from the Republic, all of whom are world beaters and major trophy winners?

The outside world may search all it likes for the answer, but the best way of finding the Holy Golfing Grail must surely be to visit these shores and search for oneself. The visitor will not have to look far. With courses behind virtually every hole in our hedgerows, we hold a sporting secret which remains hidden from tens of millions who live beyond this island.

We need tourists to come here, to spend and leave their money in our local economy, and we need the powers-that-be in Northern Ireland, charged with responsibility for attracting them, to perform in the marketing arena as they have never done before.

When he tweeted his congratulations to Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy summed up what Northern Ireland should be today - "the golfing capital of the world". I say "should" because we need to ask if our political, sports, tourist and marketing representatives are up to revealing our Golfing Grail or are they still in the rough with some way to go before they hit the green, never mind get the ball in the hole?

Darren Clarke learnt his skills in the humble surroundings of Dungannon Golf Club, which I recall cycling to as a boy with an old set of clubs strapped to my back.

His father Godfrey and I were pupils in the same class at Drumglass Primary School. In the long summer evenings, we played soccer on the under-15 team, but the skills he showed with a football far outweighed mine. We went our different ways in life, Godfrey eventually to the local club as greenkeeper, no doubt helping to inspire his son to hone his future world-beating skills.

That's Northern Ireland, small country, tiny dot on the globe, where everyone seems to know everyone from some stage of their life. It's also what makes us so proud of anyone locally who achieves success. When the last round of the Open was on television on Sunday afternoon, you could hear the guttural accents of the Ulstermen in the crowd above everyone else.

Golfing commentators are fond of quoting statistics. There can be no better than the following. Two golfing links, at Newcastle and Portrush, consistently in the top 10 in the world. Two golfers, McIlroy and McDowell, in the top 10 in the world. And now a third who has won the Open Championship, one of the most legendary sporting events on Earth.

The buck stops with various organisations, most notably Tourism Ireland, which is charged with marketing this island internationally and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, which is confined now to a domestic role in the UK.

Can Tourism Ireland truly cross the border on golf and promote Northern Ireland abroad as the place to be for this sport? And what of the Tourist Board? I cannot think of anything which should be further up the agenda for its next meeting.

Sport today is built on financial sponsorship. It also falls on the lack of it. For all our golfing success, the Irish Open, the premier professional event on this island, will be played this month with a major drop in sponsorship revenue.

One has to ask: must it forever be played in the Republic?

Northern Ireland has the stars of world golf and the courses to match them, but it has been starved of international status in the way of major tour events. The troubles of the past and the street violence of the present can be held up as reasons why we cannot host international sporting events in mid-summer.

Somehow this dreadful malaise of excuses must be broken. The whole sporting world cannot be held hostage by a small and embarrassing bunch of recreational rioters. There are likely many more murders in Dublin or London or Glasgow each year than in the whole of Northern Ireland, but it doesn't stop tourists from going to such places or deter international events from taking place as it does here.

This province should be a golfing oasis for future potential champions. They should be coming here to learn and play golf in much the same way as so many European and Asian sports stars learnt their craft on scholarships in the United States. If this were any other corner of the world with so much success to boast, you can bet the place would be awash with golf academies attracting the very best to serve their apprenticeships here. When will Northern Ireland get a major championship? A European Tour event? An Open Championship at Royal Portrush, to which both Darren and Graham McDowell have brought so much credit? Or the Ryder Cup, which was played last at the K Club in the south when Darren Clarke was again a hero? No corner of the UK is more deserving.

So what are we going to do about it? Our politicians have responsibility for funding sport and tourism. Are they really up to holding the flag for golf or will they simply and selfishly enjoy the moment when they can be seen to welcome the heroes home, get their photo-calls and autographs and move on to other matters when the spotlight swings away?