Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Rory McIlroy on course to give Irish Open a big lift

Rory McIlroy is struggling for form but he remains box office viewing

Shane Lowry deserves credit for stoutly acknowledging the responsibility of Irish golf's elite to put on a show which will lure fans in their tens of thousands to Carton House for this week's Irish Open.

The future of the event hardly could be in better hands, Irish golf is so well endowed right now with multiple Major Champions and tournament winners, ranging from World No 2 Rory McIlroy to Lowry, Carton's own representative on Tour.

Yet much more is at stake on the Montgomerie Course this week than the future of our own national championship ... the credibility of the European Tour itself rests on the 100,000 spectators officials expect to pour through the gates by Sunday's climax.

These are critical times for the professional game in Europe as recession bites deep into the Tour's heartland.

Over the past six years, sponsors and tournaments have vanished at an alarming rate. The balance of prizemoney and power on the Tour's international schedule has shifted so strongly to events in other regions (see table) that the title 'European' is almost a misnomer.

For example, it's staggering that England, a country with two million registered golfers, hosts just one tournament this year, last month's BMW PGA Championship.

And what about Spain, which two years ago boasted seven tournaments but now has just one, April's Open de Espana, which did not have a title sponsor!

The fact that 10 out of Jose Maria Olazabal's 12 miracle workers at last September's Ryder Cup and 16 of 19 Europeans in the world's elite top-50 are members of the PGA Tour and play the bulk of their golf in the US does little to help bread-and-butter events on this side of the pond attract sponsorship.

In this regard, Irish golf is lucky indeed to count on the continuing loyalty of world top-10 performers like McIlroy and Graeme McDowell to their national open, also a creditable attribute of Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke in their Major-winning pomp.

Even if this year, so far, has been fruitless and frustrating for McIlroy, the chance of seeing this gifted young man let loose the golfing 'George Best' within over coming days should send attendances soaring.

Those figures won't reach the stellar heights of last year's Irish Open at Royal Portrush. That was as much a social as a sporting phenomenon as Ulster took advantage of a rare opportunity to give a rousing welcome home to their three Major Champions.

Carton House is ideally placed just outside Dublin to draw on this island's greatest population centre and, unlike 2006 when the Ryder Cup and now defunct European Open took place less than seven miles away at The K Club, this year's Irish Open on the Monty is the only show in town.

Still, the European Tour is making every effort to market this event to the general sporting public. For example, large-screens in the extended tented village will show Saturday morning's second Lions test, while there was a dual-ticket arrangement with the Curragh to embrace that evening's Irish Derby.

Despite this event's role in highlighting Irish golf tourism internationally (helping attract 163,000 money-spinning golf visitors annually), Government no longer can guarantee automatic support for this or any sporting event in these recessionary times.

Prior to the estimated €1m profit generated by last year's bumper attendances, the Tour subbed the Irish Open out of its own coffers for several lean years ... but officials have long warned it's not in a position to do so anymore.

So it requires another bumper event this week to keep our national Open alive ... and this event's survival is as important to the Tour as it is to Irish golf.

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