Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Tee Amigos have another big job in the wild west

US Open Champions Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell with Open Championship winner Darren Clarke

The Tee Amigos will be the star turn at Killarney this week. Yet far from being a novelty act, Northern Ireland's three major-winners have a serious job in Co Kerry. The challenge of Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell is to re-establish the Irish Open as an international feature piece.

The financial downturn of the Celtic Tiger means the event first contested in 1927 has no headline sponsor and a prize fund slashed in half to €1.5 million (£1.32m). There are only three members of the world's top 50 in the field, but in Irish terms what a trio they happen to be. "Box office" is an accurate description.

"The ticket sales took a spike after Darren's win at the Open," Ben Watson, the championship director, said. "They went up by more than 20%. And before the Darren effect we had the Rory effect, which mean they were healthy anyway."

Indeed, the organisers hope to better the 82,000 attendance of 2010, which would be some feat considering 3 Mobile's sponsorship withdrawal last November left them without a marketing budget.

Until McIlroy's US Open glory "flicked a switch", they had hardly sold a ticket. At that stage, just to hold the event would have been an achievement, and without backing of €1.25m from the Irish Tourist Board, the Tour might not have gambled. It is a punt destined to pay out.

On Friday, the Stormont government announced a financial commitment to staging a European Tour event, and if a consortium including JP McManus are still interested then the Irish Open is heading for Royal Portrush.

It would be daft if Ulster, "the golfing capital of the world" as McIlroy so joyously referred to it in the wake of Clarke's triumph, did not have its own stop on the calendar. And, of course, it would give Clarke's home links a further opportunity to prove its merits, with the Royal & Ancient promising to look into the feasibility of Portrush hosting an Open.

As ever, Padraig Harrington talks a lot of sense on the matter. "I think Killarney will draw incredible crowds," he said.

"But going forward, the event still needs building, no doubt about it. The good news is that the likes of Rory, Graeme, Darren and myself are bringing more world ranking points, and that will attract more players."

The three-time major-winner is simply relieved he has a national championship to attend. "It has been a very tough time for the Irish Open. Losing that sponsor in these economic times has been difficult and the Tour, and Tourism Ireland, should be applauded," he insists.

"We're hoping this is an in-between year and that new sponsors will enhance it on the international stage. It does need enhancing if it is to reach the heights of 1980, when it was one of the Tour's biggest events."

As a qualified accountant, Harrington understands the necessity to cash in while those irons are hot. Golfing tourism brings in €110m (£97m) a year to the Irish economy, but it is in decline. Meanwhile, a report last year warned of a 10% drop in members at the country's 400-plus clubs.