Monday, August 8, 2016

Portstewart - The Irish Open Venue for 2017

The most spectacular opening tee shot in Irish golf.
It gave me no pleasure to watch the Irish Open snatched from the grasp of Lough Erne earlier this year… when just about everyone believed it was a done deal… but, similarly, now that our national Open has been handed to Portstewart in 2017, and given such a peach of a date (6 to 9 July), golf in Ireland can look at new ways to bear fruit.

The European Tour has made a significant move by rearranging the
date so that the tournament precedes the Scottish Open by one week, and the Open Championship by two. Consider that Phil Mickelson has played at the Scottish Open for the past few years, alongside other Americans (Rickie Fowler won in 2015), and there is now a very real possibility that some of these same American Pros – possibly more – will make an appearance at Portstewart, thereby getting a solid two weeks of links golf practice before competing in golf’s oldest Major. 
Views back over the par three 3rd (and 2nd beyond) from
Portstewart's 4th tee.
After all, Rickie came to Royal County Down last year, while Keegan Bradley made an appearance at Royal Portrush in 2012… when tickets sold out for the first time in European Tour history. Links golf attracts the American players… and big names lead to greater ticket sales and a higher profile.
The par three 6th at Portstewart - known as 'Five Penny Piece' - bears
similar lethal hallmarks to Royal Troon's Postage Stamp. 
The 6th green from the 7th tee shows the sort of slopes you'll
have to contend with if you miss the putting surface.
There’s little doubt that the success the Irish Open has enjoyed in recent years (ticket sales, a growing prize fund, Rory’s considerable involvement and Dubai Duty Free’s ongoing sponsorship) has helped to encourage this date change, alongside the new brush that is The European Tour’s Chief Executive, Keith Pelley. Certainly there was the impression that the French Open, which had traditionally claimed the slot two weeks ahead of the Open Championship, was an immovable object…  well, it turns out it met an unstoppable force on this occasion.

The tricky approach to the par four 8th (a sharp dogleg left)
And, if the 2017 Irish Open proves to be a triumph, we could seal up that date for ourselves. It is not like we’re short of links courses to host the event. After all, Portmarnock* has hosted it on 19 occasions and winners include Seve Ballesteros, Bernard Langer, Michael Campbell and our own John O’Leary and Fred Daly. Add previous host venues Royal Dublin, Ballybunion and County Louth to that list and we’re never going to be short of links venues boasting variety, quality and pedigree. 

* While Portmarnock declines to admit lady members it is unlikely that the Irish Open will return to the Dublin venue.

For Portstewart this is the first time the course will be hosting a European Tour event and there will be other clubs out there hoping to emulate Portstewart in the years ahead… County Sligo, most notably.

Visiting American golfers are among the biggest spending tourists who come to our country, forking out two and a half times what the average tourist spends. If the Irish Open at Portstewart attracts American professionals, then still more golf tourists will be lured here. Considering the dent that Brexit has made in the value stakes (Sterling has weakened considerably against the dollar since the UK voted to leave the EU) that can only be a good thing. Americans love coming to this country for many reasons... this sort of event just adds yet one more reason.
Portstewart's 17th green from the 18th fairway. You approach
the green from the right.
There is one downside to this big move for the Irish Open, and it concerns our parklands. If Portstewart proves a rip-roaring success and the Irish Open can stamp its claim to the time slot preceding the Open and Scottish Open – thereby creating a ‘links-swing’ – then there will be fewer chances for Irish parklands to host our national Open. The question is: is that a price worth paying? And if it is, what can Failte Ireland and Irish golf do about it?

Finally, on a personal note, I’d like to say an enormous thank you to Rory McIlroy – a man vilified for saying: “I didn’t get into golf to try and grow the game”. And yet for all the people who raced in to criticise these comments, they seem to have forgotten what he has already done for the game… and continues to do. When it comes to the Irish Open, his actions have spoken loud and clear. His support and influence are big reasons why the Irish Open date has moved so close to the oldest and most prestigious of golf's Majors.

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