Irish Open future is in doubt
Ireland has a triple-Major champion in Padraig Harrington but is about to lose its national Open.
The future of the Irish Open plunged deeper into doubt last night with the news that the European Tour is no longer prepared to provide a financial safety net for the ailing event.
History-maker Harrington and four other Irishmen won an unprecedented eight tournaments on the European Tour in 2008, hinting at the dawn of a new, golden age for professional golf in Ireland.
Yet Irish fans are unlikely to see their fellow countrymen perform on home soil next year - unless there is a significant change in Government policy or a nationwide search yields a major new sponsor for the Irish Open.
Frankly, neither seems likely in the current economic climate. Even when the Celtic Tiger still roared, the Tour had to pour money into the Irish Open.
Yet, in a private briefing before yesterday’s launch of the Tour’s exciting, new-look schedule for 2009 under the $20m ’Race to Dubai’ banner, chief executive George O’Grady warned that the Irish Open "has to stand on its own two feet now".
That’s why ’Venue to be announced’ is printed beside The Irish Open on the schedule published yesterday. In all, venues for 10 of the 56 tournaments listed have yet to be confirmed but the clouds of doubt surrounding Ireland’s premier tournament are by far the thickest.
Tom Kane, a retired US Marine Corps fighter pilot, is as forthright as ever as he urges the Government, principally through the semi-state sector, to "step up to the plate and support the Irish Open or it will die".
Stressing the event’s importance as an international showcase, Kane expressed exasperation at Failte Ireland’s failure to deliver on last year’s commitment by its former chairman Gillian Bowler "to return the Irish Open to its position as one of the top golf events in Europe" following the departure of the European Open.
Attempts to elicit a comment from senior officials at Failte Ireland yielded little more than a short statement over the weekend.
"The Tour have a contract with Adare Manor for the 2009 Irish Open," it read.
"We have heard nothing to the contrary and remain fully committed to the event and the sponsorship funding we gave to the Irish Open in 2008."
That certainly would not bode well for the future of The Irish Open in its current predicament. Yet, thankfully, this vague statement does not reflect accurately the current state of play between the main characters in this drama.
Minister for The Arts, Sport and Tourism Martin Cullen had the most recent of a series of meetings with Tour Chief O’Grady at The Ryder Cup in Valhalla over a fortnight ago.
O’Grady described his discussions with the minister as "very positive", adding: "I think he has got a lot of other things on his plate but he feels the Irish Open is very strong for Ireland.
"He does want to do it and he does feel the private sector should step up.
"Naturally, he and Failte Ireland could speak for themselves but he’s agreed to speak to people they have relationships with”
O’Grady optimistically rated the prospects of finding a sponsor at 60-40 in the Irish Open’s favour but his revelation that the Tour is no longer able to prop up the tournament financially is grim news indeed.
Explaining the current situation, O’Grady said: "We have agreed to modify our arrangement with Tom and Judy Kane at Adare Manor to see if there are other people who’ll come forward from other parts of Ireland.
"Adare Manor has been an excellent venue for us. The course has been in marvellous condition; the hotel has been very welcoming and the surrounding area has looked after us brilliantly.
"But the financial cost is hurting him and the European Tour will not invest significant sums again in The Irish Open.
“This is a very serious situation. The event has to stand on its own two feet now," he insisted.
"The Irish Open has been very important not only to me but also my predecessor, Ken Schofield.
“It’s a crucial event and we want to keep it going. So much of our heritage is in Ireland. I’m wedded to the principal of at least one Tour event there each year.
"We have underwritten it in recent years. That means you take a risk.
If you don’t get enough income, you carry it. We have invested in the Irish Open since the year Nissan came in (2003) and there has been a loss on it.
"We’ve been happy to do that on the basis we made a profit out of The Ryder Cup and the European Open certainly had been washing its face at The K Club. We made a little loss one of the years it was based there.
"Finding a sponsor for the Irish Open is a work in progress and we are having ongoing discussions with the minister, Failte Ireland and the private sector.
“We are now trying to explore if having to go west to Adare, as opposed to Dublin, Cork, the North of Ireland or anywhere else, had been holding companies back.
"In other words, we have freed-up the exploration process. But if, at the end of the day, we’re left holding the financial baby, we do not have the money to fund the Irish Open anymore," added O’Grady, hinting there was serious eastern European interest in staging a tournament in the May 14-17 slot currently occupied by the Irish Open.
The Irish PGA Championship mooted once again for The European Club next July will be the only show in town for Harrington and his Tour colleagues in 2009 if, as now seems likely, the Irish Open expires.