The Hangover?

APPEARANCE money had been a major problem for the European Tour for a decade or more by the time the Irish Open first came to Kerry in 1991.

The Tour was still busy figuring out ways of attracting high-class fields for their most prestigious events — as Ireland certainly was at the time — and the guarantee of handsome sums to get them to show up was key.

On the championship’s return to Killarney in 92, the Tour decided to put on a Skins match on the Tuesday. They sought pre-tournament publicity for the event and got it in spades — so when the whole thing went pear-shaped, the press were among those who felt they had been conned and demanded an explanation.

The message sent out was that Christy O’Connor Jnr, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer were playing for a total of £125,000. Even today, that’s a lot of money and at the time sounded so good as to almost push the tournament itself into the background.

Some 2,000 people trudged around Killeen to watch the stars do battle for sizeable portions of the jackpot and felt reasonably well entertained — until they witnessed the fiasco on the 18th green. Messrs Faldo, Woosnam and Langer all three-putted leaving the sole Irishman as the apparent winner of a cool £125,000.

But it soon transpired that O’Connor had received a special fee for his involvement, with the £125,000 shared between Faldo, Woosnam and Langer, all three of whom, of course, were Major championship winners.

However, the habitués of the press tent were less than happy at the way they had been duped, Faldo readily admitted that it was a “farce the like of which I would never again wish to be associated with” and a red-faced Ken Schofield, the then executive director of the Tour, accepted they had got things wrong and promised that such a con job would never again be repeated.

The dress rehearsal may have been a disaster of sorts but the rest of the week worked out just fine. Brian Barnes, the jovial Scot who loved nothing more than a pint, didn’t come even close to leaving with the title but, if anything, he proved a greater hit with the fans and especially the devotees of night time entertainment than Faldo himself. Barnes visited many of Killarney’s pubs, mingled with the locals, sank plenty and sang with the best of them.

Faldo, of course, took the tournament a little more seriously than that, even though he lost a big lead on the final day and was pressed into a play-off against the South African Wayne Westner that he won at the third extra hole.

There are those who feared the 2011 version of the Irish Open in Killarney will suffer from “second season syndrome” but that concern has surely dissipated given the presence of so many home grown superstars and Major championship winners in the field. They now all come at their own expense without any question of appearance money so at least there won’t be any repeat of the shenanigans of 1992.

Tom Prendergast was secretary/manager at the time, remains an enthusiastic member and is fully satisfied that the tournament will live up to the expectations.

“We have no fears on that score just as we were confident that 1992 would go off smoothly”, says Prendergast. “The crowds were tremendous with television probably not as big an influence as it is today and of course we had tremendous fields … Faldo back to defend and the likes of Jose-Maria Olazabal, Bernhard Langer, Colin Montgomerie and Ian Woosnam there to take him on. Just as is the case today, the tournaments back then were good for the club, the locality, the county and golf in general.”

Nevertheless, when I teased it out with members at the end of last year’s championship as to whether they would like to see it return in 12 months’ time, most said they were all for it — with one or two misgivings. Chief among them was whether it could ever be as good second time round and later still came the bombshell that 3 were withdrawing their sponsorship. That meant a 50% reduction in the prize fund and the inevitable fear that the entry would be well short of what was required. And that’s when Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke rode to the rescue — big time!

“The fact we have four Major winners in the field — all of them from Ireland — is obviously a massive boost for the event and has removed any lingering doubts that some of the members might have had,” says Prendergast. “Obviously there are some restrictions and the Killeen Course has been closed for the past fortnight but we don’t mind that inconvenience at all. The members did a great job last year in the area of stewarding and so on and it won’t be any different this time.

“We expect the crowds to be something similar. We had over 80,000 over the four days and coped very well with that number. Nineteen years had elapsed since the previous Irish Open at Killarney and if anything we will have benefited from the experience and I know the enthusiasm for the job among the members is as great as ever.”

Pride in one’s golf course runs very deep in the mindset of clubs the world over and Killarney is no exception. There were those who felt unhappy at the prospect of the eventual champion, Ross Fisher, breaking 60 on the morning of the second day last year (he eventually finished on 61) and that 18 under should be the winning total.

“The summer of 2010 was extremely dry and as a result there was very little rough,” Prendergast points out. “This time, there has been a lot of rain and accordingly the rough will be more meaningful. Anyway, the people come to see birdies and eagles and not double bogeys. It’s the way these guys hit the ball so well, it means there is no shame in scores of around 16 and 17 under.”

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