Irish Open 2015: Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer used to charm the fans, and now big names stars are back
The Irish Open honours board reads likes a who’s who of European heroes.
Seve Ballesteros is up there as a winner three times, as is Sir Nick Faldo. Sam Torrance, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam each won it twice and while Sergio Garcia and Jose Maria Olazabal have also lifted the trophy.
When Seve was king many considered those years in the 1970s and 1980s to be the glory days of the Irish Open when Europeans played in Europe and Americans knew their place.
Only kidding: Ben Crenshaw travelled over to Portmarnock in 1976 and walked away with the title.
But something was lost as the European Tour began to stretch out to encompass large swathes of Asia and the Middle East. The star names had more interest in the riches the PGA Tour was offering across the Atlantic as the nineties turned into the 21st Century.
But now it feels like the magic is back for the Irish Open. The field gathering for battle at Royal County Down is the strongest assembled since those halcyon days of the eighties.
Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia rarely grace the European Tour with their presence these days while American Rickie Fowler adds a little trans-Atlantic glamour to the occasion.
Fowler in particular, responded from overtures from Rory McIlroy to play. There are other reasons why some of the games biggest names have decided to come to the tournament
Undoubtedly the move to bring the tournament back to Northern Ireland after a gap of more than 60 years when it was held at Royal Portrush in 2012 stimulated a huge amount of interest.
That event smashed all European Tour attendance records and the Tour immediately acknowledged that they would be mad not to return. The Nick Faldo designed course at Lough Erne has been confirmed as the venue in two years time.
It has also helped that Northern Ireland has two courses which routinely feature towards the top end of the world’s best in the golfing magazines and naturally the Tour would have been indeed crazy had they considered anywhere else first.
Royal Portrush was the first tournament in European Tour history to be completely sold out and Royal County Down will become the second.
It was declining attendances and a similar decline in sponsors and therefore prize money which led both the European Tour to expand eastwards and the top players to disappear in the opposite direction over the last 20 years or so.
Established events like the English Open and the European Open disappeared from the calendar while others struggled to attract front line sponsors.
Even Royal Portrush only happened because the Stormont Executive stepped in as erstwhile sponsors – seeing the potential for golf as a major selling point for Northern Ireland on the back of the major successes of Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.
Securing Dubai Duty Free as the main sponsor for this year’s tournament is something of a breakthrough in the commercial side of things and again the link to McIlroy is more than a little responsible for that.
Looking ahead to the long-term future, it can only be right that the Open continues to alternate between both sides of the border.
Royal Portrush is out of the picture while preparations continue for it to stage the Open Championship, but there is no good reason why it cannot come back to Royal County Down at some point in the future and Lough Erne is also gaining a solid reputation.