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Rory McIlroy's Irish Open leads to a £1.5m charity pot of gold


Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain poses during a cartoon portrait sitting at the Arabian Nights Evening on Saturday night

Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain poses during a cartoon portrait sitting at the Arabian Nights Evening on Saturday night

Getty Images

Rory McIlroy with his girlfriend Erica Stoll

Rory McIlroy with his girlfriend Erica Stoll

Getty Images

Fans watch Padraig Harrington’s chip on the 8th hole

Fans watch Padraig Harrington’s chip on the 8th hole

Open champion Soren Kjeldsen

Open champion Soren Kjeldsen

Fans shelter from the wind and rain

Fans shelter from the wind and rain

Getty Images

Rory shelters from the wind and rain

Rory shelters from the wind and rain

Photopress Belfast

Fans throng the course on the final day yesterday

Fans throng the course on the final day yesterday

Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain poses during a cartoon portrait sitting at the Arabian Nights Evening on Saturday night

The organisers modestly denied that it was part of their precision planning but with perfect timing, a spectacular rainbow arched across the Irish Sea yesterday evening only minutes after the dramatic end of the Irish Open in Newcastle.

And aptly there was a pot of gold too - for Rory McIlroy's charity.

It was also the first opportunity for the world number one to show off his new love.

As the Holywood golfer strolled hand in hand with Erica Stoll, the smiling couple were besieged by photographers, taking the focus away from the three-way play-off for the championship which Rory had hosted for his charity foundation.

But though the pictures will be dominating front pages across the world today, tournament organisers and local tourism officials had other things on their mind as they hailed the prestige occasion a roaring success even without Rory's participation in the last two days.

And they also laughed off the negative impact of the rain and the wind which led to the iconic course being dubbed the Royal County Down-pour.

Even though Great Dane Soren Kjeldsen emerged victorious in the nerve-jangling shoot-out at the 18th hole, the Rory Foundation was the real winner. The tournament raised more than £1.5m for good causes, including a nearby respite centre for children with cancer.

Rory was among the first to congratulate the 40-year-old Scandinavian on his first European win in six years and to thank the players and officials for doing great things for his Foundation.

Masking any personal disappointment over his own form, Rory added: "I'm very proud to have been associated with what has been an incredible event, to bring it to Northern Ireland and to see the amount of people who came out to support it."

Figures released by the European Tour revealed 107,000 people had attended the Irish Open and its curtain-raising pro-am.

The CEO of the Rory Foundation, Barry Funston, said: "It's been wonderful.

"The work of the Foundation has been magnificently highlighted by Rory, who invested so much of his time in the Open. And the events we have organised have brought in a lot of money too."

But while the Cancer Fund for Children coffers were swollen, it wasn't immediately clear if the Irish Open would swell visitor numbers to Northern Ireland.

Tourism chiefs are still convinced that the satellite TV images of the stunning Royal County Down course, beamed into 400 million homes around the globe, can boost the province as a hot destination.

But privately they were also cursing their luck that yet again the hoodoo of the heavens had struck, just as it did at the Irish Open in Portrush in 2012 and the Giro d'Italia last year.

Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell, who beat Rory McIlroy in the race to shake the hand of Soren Kjeldsen, said the competition will be a major bonus for the tourism industry which has seen increased visitor numbers even before the golf tournament.

The PSNI also lauded the teamwork which went on behind the scenes to make everything run smoothly and to reduce traffic disruption to a minimum.

Chief Superintendent Peter Farrar said the success of the Irish Open was down to many months of detailed preparation.

"Northern Ireland has once again proven beyond any doubt that it can successfully deliver a world class event," he added.

Council chairwoman Naomi Bailie said she was certain the global platform for Newcastle would pay dividends in the future. "We are selling Newcastle to millions of people and that's a real opportunity for us to build upon," she said.

Tourism officials are hoping that more than £10m will be generated for the local economy by the tournament, even though TV pictures were dominated by shots of driving rain, seas of umbrellas and golfers trying to take shelter from blustery breezes. Chief Operating Officer for Tourism NI, Kathryn Thomson, said: "Events like the Irish Open are massively important for Northern Ireland. Portrush had one of (its) best summer seasons after the Irish Open in 2012."

European Tour championship director Antonia Beggs praised the enthusiasm of the crowds who had turned out despite the appalling weather.

"It's been totally awesome," she said. "It's been a sell-out for all four days. And we've been thrilled by how it has all gone at Royal County Down. I am really proud to have been involved in a tournament where there are so many amazing people coming to see the players play, rain or shine, wind or no wind."

McIlroy's early exit was undoubtedly a major downer for fans. Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt, who was in Newcastle with friends yesterday, acknowledged that his absence had been a disappointment for fans with tickets for the last two days.

But he praised McIlroy for what he had done to raise the profile of the Irish Open and to help local charities.

"He, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell are superb ambassadors. It's time for us politicians to step up to the mark too," he said.

BBC newsreader Keith Burnside was excited to see the action for himself, rather then broadcasting updates.

"It was great to see the players up close and personal and to sample the atmosphere. I thoroughly enjoyed it," he said.

He and many other fans were, however, left wondering about the identities of the top 10 players on the leaderboard yesterday. One man tweeted "Who's Soren now?"

Belfastman Walter Ferguson said: "I fully expected Rory to be here on the last day. That's the reason I bought a Sunday ticket."

Equally gutted were Bangor golfers Chris Jones and Andy Murray, who left early to avoid the traffic on the way home and because of Rory's disappearing act. For Chris, however, there was one final fillip. At Castle Park, he was one of the few golfers who managed to chip a golf ball into a washing machine on a pontoon on a lake, reviving memories of how a young Rory had done exactly the same thing on the Gerry Kelly show years ago.

Trade in the centre of Newcastle was significantly better yesterday than earlier in the week, when a number of shops complained that visitors were virtually non-existent throughout the day - although restaurants and bars were packed at night.

Many businessmen were taking it on the chin, stressing that the legacy of the Irish Open was the all-important thing.

Michael Nugent, whose family have been selling ice creams from their Strand cafe, said: "All that coverage on the TV will make a big difference in the years ahead. The pictures have been amazing. Just to see that backdrop of the Mournes has been invaluable in terms of advertising Newcastle."

Another business owned by members of Mr Nugent's family had its profile raised on Twitter after Graeme McDowell posted a message to his 671,566 followers praising the Sucos firm's Iron Man juice he'd had for breakfast.

Also receiving huge numbers of internet hits was Mayobridge man Jarlath Magee, whose golfing hoax was the talk of Royal County Down after it went viral. He had managed to trick NBC TV in America into believing that he was Rory McIlroy's cousin.

At the recent WGC Cadillac matchplay in San Francisco, Jarlath told an interviewer his name was Jarly McIlroy and spoke of his pride in his famous relative.

"People over here in America have been recognising me all the time and loads of folks from home have been in touch. But Rory hasn't," he said.

Most of the big name golfers who were expected to be fighting for the Irish Open Waterford Crystal trophy went home immediately after their early departures from the tournament.

But a number were taking the opportunity to see some of Co Down's scenery. One woman told me: "I was in Tollymore Forest Park on Thursday evening after the golf and spotted Rickie Fowler out walking with his girlfriend Alexis Randock. I'm told she's a bikini model, but she was wearing her sensible winter clothes in Tollymore."

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