Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Door opens as Irish Open comes to Royal Co Down

Tiger Woods enjoyed practising in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne back in 2005, as he warmed up for the Open Championship at St Andrews

Bringing the Irish Open back to Northern Ireland after the success of Royal Portrush 2012 was always a no-brainer for the European Tour.

Magnificent Royal County Down, in the shadow of the Mournes in Newcastle, has emerged as the Tour's choice for 2015.

Official confirmation of the decision is awaited, hinging, as always, on the bottom line.

The Northern Ireland Executive provided funding in the region of £1.5million in support of the 2012 Portrush event and a similar investment will be required this time round.

The resounding Portrush success, in terms of record spectator numbers and global exposure for Northern Ireland golf tourism, should make it a rubber stamp job.

And by selecting the 'other' Royal, County Down for next year's tournament, the European Tour has pulled another rabbit from the hat – one which will add a new dimension to what has gone down as the most successful tournament in the Tour's history.

If anything, Royal County Down is even more spectacular a setting than its north coast equivalent and is the one which usually ranks a couple of places higher on the various lists of the world's best courses.

The plans to take the Irish Open to Newcastle for 2015 have naturally gone down extremely well with Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell both of whom are playing in the Accenture World Matchplay in Arizona this week.

"I think it's a good idea to maybe alternate it every year and have it in the south one year and then go back up north the next," said McIlroy.

"It spreads it around and it gives people in Northern Ireland the chance to see some of the best players in the world play."

McDowell was an enthusiastic supporter of the decision to bring the Irish Open to Royal Portrush two years ago (won by Jamie Donaldson, pictured) and says bringing it to Newcastle will be just as big a success.

"Irish golf has strengths on both sides of the border and it is important that the fans get to see their favourite players north and south," he said.

"We support the Irish Open no matter where it is and, as Northern Ireland players, to get to play Portrush and County Down is very special," he added.

"Royal County Down is one of my favourite courses in Ireland – it's a bit more of an acquired taste and you've got to play it a few times to find your way around those blind tee shots.

"The more you play it, the more you recognise it for the class place it is."

Curtis Cup star Danielle McVeigh, a member at Royal County Down, said she was delighted at the news.

"To have the Irish Open coming to my home course is amazing and it's going to be a great event," she said. "It's the best course in the world."

The European Tour has yet to confirm Royal County Down for the 2015 Irish Open and questions remain about securing sponsorship for the event. Two years ago the Executive ploughed £1.5million into the tournament and although that was great value for money in terms of the wonderful publicity it generated around the world, the Government will be keen to attract a main commercial backer this time around.

If McIlroy is correct that the Tour wants to see the Irish Open staged this side of the border on a regular basis, it can only help towards the ultimate goal of bringing the Open Championship back here in the future.

Royal Portrush would remain the favourite for that as the club has been continually working behind the scenes with the Royal and Ancient since the successful 2012 Irish Open and a lead-in time for at least 10 years is required to satisfy them that the course would be ready to stage the only major to be held outside the United States.

Over 13,000 people attended in 2012 – far and away a European Tour record – and more people showed up for the Wednesday Pro-Am than usually attend the final day's play of a regular Tour event.

Those numbers won't be threatened next year at Royal County Down, but only because of the nature of the geography at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. They simply won't be able to fit in as many people around the 18 holes.

At the 2007 Walker Cup, graced by McIlroy, spectators were able to follow the players down the fairways to give them a better view of the action. But that was only possible because of the matchplay nature of the event and won't apply in a strokeplay tournament.

Even so, it is almost certain to emulate 2012 by being a sell-out even if not quite so many tickets will be on sale and further proof to the R&A of the huge appetite for the game amongst the Ulster public.

This year the Irish Open returns to Cork's Fota Island after 12 years and it remains to be seen what spectator numbers will be, but last year at Carton House they were significantly down on 2012.

Royal County Down has over the years earned high praise from the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson who played the Senior Open Championships there in 2001 and 2002 while Tiger Woods shunned the top Scottish courses in preparation for his 2005 Open win at St Andrews by crossing the Irish Sea to practice at Newcastle instead.

It's always the hope to attract the top American players to European Tour events, like then reigning US PGA champion Keegan Bradley who partnered McIlroy in the first two rounds of the 2012 Irish Open.

Taking the event to one of the best courses in the world certainly can't hurt in that regard for next summer.

If the European Tour does indeed pitch up at Royal County Down next summer it will be the first time since 1939 that the Irish Open will have been staged there. The 2012 Irish Open was the first to be held north of the border in 60 years.

Golf Digest magazine recently voted Royal County Down its No 1 course in the world outside the United States.

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