O’Grady committed to Irish Open

YOU can sense the air of optimism amongst those connected with the 3 Irish Open but nobody is insisting that all past difficulties have been resolved.

George O’Grady’s words of advice should be heeded.

“To have 3 on board as sponsors is marvellous and the government’s commitment is also vitally important,” he said. “We have a three-year arrangement and are determined to grow the tournament with 3 and the government.”

Prize money is only one aspect of what is required to fund a modern tournament. Close on €2m is required if these events are to be presented at the highest level for the players and spectators alike and there is a sense of frustration that more local sponsors have not come on board for Killarney. Heineken, who signed up recently, are a notable and welcome exception.

The Irish Open has teetered on the brink of extinction since 2003 when Murphys concluded the sponsorship they had taken over from PJ Carroll, the company that revived the event after a 22-year hiatus in 1975.

It looked as if the championship might die away again until Gerard O’Toole, chief of Nissan Ireland, saved the day at the 11th hour and agreed to sponsor it for three years. When that period expired, there was still nobody around to take on the mantle so O’Toole very sportingly agreed to go another year.

Tom Kane, the Irish-American owner of Adare Manor Hotel and Golf Resort, stepped in and put on the event for the next two years without a title sponsor. He did well in his search for subsidiary supporters in 2007 but he, too, was frustrated by the lack of support in 2008.

So it was back to square one until Robert Finnegan of telecommunications company 3 was approached by Martin Cullen, then Minister for Sport. Finnegan agreed to take the tournament forward with an initial contract through to 2011.

“I certainly see this year’s Irish Open as a relaunch of a major event on the Tour,” says O’Grady. “The first point I would like to make is that we are committed to the Irish Open and have been since my predecessor’s (Ken Schofield) time. We have invested money in the Irish Open … you could say, we should have done following the success of the Ryder Cup in 2006.

“It is unthinkable to me that there wouldn’t be at least one tournament in Ireland. In tough economic times, Minister Cullen discovered 3, met with them during the Olympic Games and arranged for myself and my colleagues to get together with Robert Finnegan, their CEO. Robert has been very enthusiastic from the start, determined to elevate the tournament to the highest level. 3 have injected serious money into the tournament and we are very appreciative of their superb support and impressive ground breaking new promotion.”

There was a time when corporate hospitality was a core aspect at the Irish Open but the economic climate is much more conservative today. Indeed there will be little at Killarney this month.

“It’s a combination of trying to drum up business and interest while at the same time controlling the costs. Tents and scaffolding cost money and if you don’t sell the business, you lose that money.

“In the past at Irish or European Opens, you would most likely have the support of a bank. Allied Irish Bank was one of our biggest sponsors and also the Bank of Ireland. Nevertheless, we are delighted to have Audi providing fleets of courtesy cars in addition to excellent support from Genworth, the Europe Hotel, Liebherr and now Heineken.

“Tough economic times have made it more challenging for them. We understand that. We look to financially support the tournament with money from television and the gate. We are very hopeful that with a new date, the return to Killarney and with good weather we will see the number of spectators that the Irish Open enjoyed for many years.”

The days when the Irish Open was one of the flagship tournaments on the European schedule passed in the last decade. Those countries, or companies, putting up the biggest prize funds were handed the best dates and as a result Ireland moved down the priority list. More often than not, the Irish Open was held in mid-May when courses and the weather were rarely at their best. And with the school holiday period still a few months away, attendances also suffered. O’Grady responded to the determination of Finnegan to do everything possible to elevate and enhance a championship with which he has always had a close affinity.

“We’ve asked too much of Ireland,” he acknowledged. “When the Ryder Cup was coming there you had the Irish Open, the oldest championship and the one that should be the flagship; you had the European Open there as well and, yes, you could live with two. Ireland, however, also played host to the American Express WGC with Tiger Woods then the undisputed number one player in the field and then the Seve Trophy.”

Now a much more suitable date has been found with one of the healthiest prize funds on the European Tour.

Along with that, O’Grady is very gratified with the support forthcoming from the Killarney club, the welcome they are receiving from the town organising committee and the people of Kerry in general.

“If this becomes a true festival – which I’m told is likely to happen – and Ireland continues to get back behind it, then I think that with the new date, that will be very encouraging for the future,” he continued.

“That is what 3 and the government have provided – a real opportunity at the superb Killarney Golf and Fishing Club to make the Irish Open attractive to the players and spectators.

“Pádraig Harrington says the date works for him. We have Rory McIlroy, the world number seven, the Molinari brothers Francesco and Edoardo, who won the World Cup together last year. We’ve given an invitation to Matteo Manassero, the brilliant young Italian. Former Open champion Todd Hamilton asked for an invitation and, of course, Graeme McDowell is now a major champion following his wonderful US Open triumph. The challenges we have are really on a global scale with the top players able to choose where they want to play ever more than they could before. We continue to encourage more and more to include the 3 Irish Open on their schedule.”

The prospect of returning to Killarney in summer is exciting everybody at the Tour and also in tourism circles with ticket sales growing on a daily basis.

“We have been to Killarney twice and Nick Faldo won each time,” says O’Grady. “We won’t have any issues with the golf course although they had a difficult winter. They have gone to a lot of expense and have it in great condition.”

IF you’re beginning to feel thisinterview belongs on the businesspages, you have a point but this is, after all, a serious professional sport and the money must come from somewhere.

At least Ireland still has its own national Open running since 1975, more than can England can say. The only tournament this year in a country of that size and with such a massive and enthusiastic golfing population was the BMW PGA Championship. Even the Ryder Cup in Wales next October is proving a hard sell.

“The hospitality side of the Ryder Cup in Ireland was enormously successful but to date we’re not there in Wales,” O’Grady admitted. “But then no sporting event is selling out miles in advance. People sit on their hands and they sell out at the end and we’ve had a lot more interest in the last few weeks. You bring your costs back but we don’t believe in short changing any tournament. Everything on the European Tour has to be done to a certain standard.

“If you can’t do it really well, your sponsors will go somewhere else. Everything has to look the part.”

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