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Irish Open Ernes new backing from star man Rory McIlroy

By Liam Kelly

Sports fan Rory McIlroy conducted a golf clinic for the battered, bruised, but triumphant Irish Rugby players yesterday before a flight to California today for the Open which starts on Thursday.

McIlroy took time out to attend the Northern Ireland v Greece Euro 2016 qualifier at Windsor Park last Thursday, and the Ireland v France rugby World Cup clash in Cardiff on Sunday.

He then gave the Irish rugby heroes a few golfing tips at Celtic Manor as they rested up following the gruelling battle against France.

Prior to his departure for the USA, he also welcomed the European Tour's announcement that Dubai Duty Free will continue to partner with his charitable Foundation as host and sponsor of the Irish Open for the next three years.

Further good news was the confirmation of a return to top level tournament golf for The K Club from May 19-22 next year, and an increase in prize money from €2.5m (£1.85m) to €4m (£2.96m) for the national Open.

McIlroy's influence persuaded a number of international stars including Rickie Fowler, Ernie Els and Luke Donald to play in Royal County Down last May.

His role was also pivotal to Dubai Duty Free coming on board as title sponsors, and to ensuring the level of publicity and status for the tournament which persuaded them to continue backing the Open.

This is hugely positive for Irish golf as the prize fund, the sponsorship, and the McIlroy factor combine to restore the Irish Open as a premier tournament on the international golfing schedule. McIlroy said: "The Irish Open has always meant so much to me, so I am really excited to announce my commitment to host the tournament, on behalf of the Rory Foundation, for the next three years.

"I would like to thank Colm McLoughlin of Dubai Duty Free and Keith Pelley of The European Tour for supporting my vision to develop the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Hosted by the Rory Foundation into one of the leading events on The European Tour's schedule over the next three years."

This is a new departure for The K Club, which has never previously staged the Irish Open, although it was the home of the prestigioius European Open under the Smurfit banner from 1995-2007.

The latter tournament boasted an illustrious list of winners including Major champions Michael Campbell, Darren Clarke, Retief Goosen and Bernhard Langer, alongside former European Tour Number Ones Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood.

Opened in 1991, 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of its existence as a landmark golfing resort. The vision of founder Dr Michael Smurfit gradually evolved into making it Ireland's first Ryder Cup host venue, an ambition that was realised in 2006.

A European victory under the captaincy of Ian Woosnam made it a successful Ryder Cup despite weather issues earlier that week.

Dr Smurfit said: "We look forward to the year ahead greatly, as along with celebrating the 25-year anniversary of The K Club and the ten-year anniversary of the staging of The Ryder Cup, it will also be the year that I celebrate my 80th birthday."

McIlroy tees it up in the Open at the Silverado Resort in Napa, California, on Thursday, the opening event of the 2015-16 PGA Tour season.

Meanwhile, top stars of sport and showbiz, including soccer hero Liam Brady, Mike Gibson and Fergus Slattery from rugby, Eamonn Coghlan (athletics), Christy O'Connor Jr and Des Smyth (golf), and Babs Keating of Tipperary GAA fame attended the 80th birthday party celebrations of Links GS legend Cecil Whelan at Luttrellstown Castle on Saturday. The Links Society raised more than €11m (£8.14m) for charity from 1966 to 2011.

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