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'It's completely different to other tournaments': How Rory McIlroy reinvented the Irish Open

Excitement is building ahead of this week’s Irish Open at The K Club – but it hasn’t always been the case.

McIlroy has been proactive in promoting the event and restoring it to its former glories.
McIlroy has been proactive in promoting the event and restoring it to its former glories.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

THERE’S A REAL sense of occasion surrounding the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open this week.

A quality field, significant prize money and a renowned Irish golfing venue. It’s like the good old days again.

Thousands of fans are expected to descend on The K Club, a decade after its hosting of the Ryder Cup, for an event which has all the ingredients to be as memorable.

After a period languishing in the golfing wilderness, the Irish Open is back and has the potential to re-establish itself as one of the leading events on the European Tour circuit.

“There is an incredible buzz around the Irish Open,” Championship Director Rory Colville tells The42. “It’s completely different to any other tournament and has become an increasingly important one for the European Tour.”

“It’s the first time I’ve been involved with the event having worked on various others around the world and it’s definitely a tournament which is in very good shape going forward.”

The future is bright, but it wasn’t always like that.

It was hit hard by the economic downturn. The reduced purse and dwindling financial muscle of the leading professional golf tournament on these shores reflected the difficulties the sport was experiencing during the bust.

The loss of Nissan and then Three as title sponsors was the sign of the belt-tightening times with the winner’s share halved from €500,000 to just a quarter of a million.

Rory McIlroy with Danny Willett McIlroy shares a joke with Masters champion Danny Willett at The K Club earlier. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In the space of three years, the Irish Open had fallen to the financial level of second-rate tour fixtures such as the Hassan Trophy in Morocco and the Scandinavian Masters.

The organisers insisted it had been a good few years but they simply weren’t able to keep-up with the emerging, and highly lucrative, events in Asia and across the Atlantic.

It remained an attractive event for European Tour pros – the honours board was a reminder of better times – but the big names simply weren’t interested. With little or no money on offer, they had no reason to fit it into their schedule.

In 2011, Discover Ireland – the tourism board – provided the bulk of the tournament’s prize money, almost like a bail-out, to ensure the once-prestigious Irish Open didn’t become a non-event.

But it’s been the steadfast loyalty and support of Ireland’s golden generation of golfers which has ensured the tournament has stayed afloat.

A view of Royal County Down Golf Club ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Dubai Duty Free's sponsorship has been key to the event's revival. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

For the second year running, Rory McIlroy’s charitable foundation will host the event and it’s been his endless promotion which has helped elevate the Irish Open to a whole new level.

“With Dubai Duty Free signed up as a sponsor for five years at the Rory Foundation hosting, we’re in very good shape,” Colville continued.

“You’ve got some national players who are huge stars in the game and added to that the fact that Irish people are made about golf. It has all come together and there’s a great level of excitement.”

McIlroy’s personal ties with some of the biggest and most exciting names in world golf has enhanced the field and helped entice sponsors to become associated with the event.

It has allowed organisers to increase the prize fund to €4 million, which is the biggest in the Irish Open’s history, as the eyes of the golfing world turn to the Kildare estate once again.

It’s perhaps fitting that the start of this new era for Irish golf begins at The K Club, 10 years on from one of the great sporting weeks in this country.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been that long,” Colville adds. “The K Club have been a great partner for us and all the pieces have fallen into place this year.

“Rory’s profile has helped the elevate the tournament into the position we want it to be in going forward. We (The European Tour) decided to increase the prize find and that’s been a big step forward for us this year.

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“Prize money is hugely important but so is a world class venue and the K Club offers us that.”

McIlroy is part of a strong Irish contingent. Gary Hurley’s last-minute sponsor’s invite has brought the home representation to 22 with Harrington, Lowry, McDowell, Clarke, McGinley and Dunne all in the field.

Lowry was the last Irishman to win when he announced himself to the golfing world back in 2009. Both he and the event have come along way since then.

“The Irish Open is a bit of a crazy week for the Irish players because there is so much going on during the week, but you have got to embrace it and try to enjoy it,” he said.

“I definitely thrive on playing in front of a home crowd, and the Irish fans are always brilliant with the home players. The support I get at home is unbelievable, and I am sure there will be a few familiar faces at The K Club this week.”

Shane Lowry Lowry speaking to the media on Tuesday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

As expected, ticket sales for the four-day event are going well with organisers expecting the weekend to be a sell-out with free shuttle buses running between the course and Maynooth train station.

“This week has been a year in the planning,” Conville says. “For five weeks, we’ve had men on the ground building grandstands, hospitality tents, spectator food villages and media facilities.

“It’s always a special week because it is the only one the eyes of the golfing world are on Ireland. This golf tournament deserves to be up there sitting alongside the very best and our focus is on this week and then building on it for next year and the years after that.

“Lets just hope the weather behaves itself.”

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Ryan Bailey

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