New world number one golfer Rory McIlroy should be followed round the globe by Stormont officials to help tap into any tourism potential, according to a politician.
Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt led tributes to the 22-year-old Co Down sports star at the North's Assembly after McIlroy reached the top of golf’s global rankings.
But Mr Nesbitt said more should be done to capitalise on the potential to draw golf tourists on the back of such success.
Democratic Unionist Peter Weir pointed to marketing strategies already under way in the US, plus the success in drawing the 2012 Irish Open to top Northern Ireland course Royal Portrush.
But there was cross-party praise for the golfer from across Ireland, north and south, as the congratulations of Stormont ministers was echoed by the Republic of Ireland's Sport Minister Michael Ring.
Mr Nesbitt told the Assembly: “On September 19 2007, Rory was the world’s number 876th. Today he is number one. And in a few weeks’ time in Augusta, he will attempt to win the Masters and if he does, Northern Ireland will hold three of world golf’s four major trophies.”
After winning the Honda Classic in Florida, McIlroy initially ignored questions on his success and instead praised the event and its support for charity.
Mr Nesbitt hailed the moment as a gracious gesture which he said showed considerable maturity.
But Mr Nesbitt said: “He did it with the support of his father Gerry, his mother Rosie. His girlfriend was there but we were not.”
He added: “I know the minister for tourism has said she is reserving half a million pounds to promote and advertise the Irish Open at Portrush. May I suggest that today she starts that spend, with £233 for a ticket for BA flight 1526 out of Heathrow tomorrow for Miami and that she sends a marketing executive to the Doral Golf Club where Rory will tee-off this Thursday as world golf’s number one player and Northern Ireland’s number one ambassador.”
The DUP’s Mr Weir, whose party colleague Arlene Foster is Tourism Minister, praised McIlroy’s success.
But he added: “On such a day of joy it is a little bit disappointing that it is sullied by some of the remarks of the previous speaker who tries to point-score.
“The reality is that there has been a considerable level of both investment and support from Invest NI, including Invest NI going live on advertising on the PGA tour this week, which will run through to June; the reception that was held on January 9 for 75 executives at the ATT pro-am event at Pebble Beach.
“Invest NI will also be hosting hospitality at the US Open, putting us very much at the heart of world golf. And mention has been made of the Portrush spend.
“So, leaving aside the petty sniping, I would like to say that this House is united in sending out a clear signal: well done Rory, you’ve done us all proud.”
The Republic of Ireland Sport Minister Michael Ring meanwhile added his own tribute to McIlroy’s success, saying: “Rory did brilliantly to hold off such a strong challenge from Tiger Woods and others and win by two strokes, especially after coming so agonisingly close to winning the Accenture World Match Play Championship only last weekend.
“I am sure your family, your coach and mentor, Michael, Holywood Golf Club and everyone in Ireland are all once again immensely proud of you.”
McIlroy’s success in reaching the top of the world rankings follows last year’s Open championship win for Darren Clarke.
Clarke had completed a Northern Ireland hat-trick after US Open wins for McIlroy the same year and Graeme McDowell in 2010.
Tourism Ireland’s chief executive Niall Gibbons agreed that McIlroy’s world-beating performance was a great opportunity to attract potential visitors.
He said: “He is a fantastic ambassador for golf and his success has placed our world-class golf once more to the forefront of everyone’s mind.”
During the Stormont debate all other political parties hailed McIlroy‘s success.
The Alliance party and the SDLP said his continuing success had lifted spirits, and brought back fond memories of past sporting success.
Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan said Ireland has a wealth of golf talent playing on the world stage but that Rory McIlroy is now “top of the tree”.
There was praise also for Antrim’s Mark Allen on winning snooker’s World Open title in China, his first ranking tournament win.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister backed the support for the sports stars but he also asked politicians to remember another fond figure, comedian Frank Carson whose funeral was held in Belfast on the same weekend as people enjoyed the sporting success.