With only a limited number of tickets remaining for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open this weekend, tournament host Paul McGinley has all the validation he needs that bringing the European Tour to Lahinch was the right call, regardless of which stars tee it up on the prestigious links tomorrow.
Rory McIlroy was yesterday referred to as the “elephant in the room” at this week’s $7 million (€6.2m) Rolex Series event. It is true that Ireland’s world number three is conspicuous by his absence from home soil having declared last February that he would be skipping the tournament he hosted for the last four years in favour of next week’s Scottish Open as the tune-up for The Open in his backyard at Royal Portrush.
Yet the field his successor as host has managed to assemble this week is a strong one and attractive enough to give the European Tour the real possibility of a sell-out at this remote outpost on the western fringe of its sphere of influence and that is good enough for the meticulous planning of their board member and victorious 2014 Ryder Cup captain.
“We’re well on our way to having sell-out crowds for the weekend which is unbelievable really considering The Open also is going to be on here in a few weeks time in this country of ours and we can sell out, hopefully, two golf tournaments in the space of three weeks,” McGinley said yesterday.
“Rory’s obviously a huge body blow,” McGinley said. “Of course there are challenges and that was a huge challenge, particularly so early after the announcement that we were coming here, that he wasn’t going to play.
Of course it is. A guy like that who, outside of Tiger is probably the most charismatic in the world, he’s from Ireland and he decides not to play this year, of course it’s a body blow.
"I think we’ve recovered from that strongly and the fact we’ve sell-out crowds is validation of that, that the Irish Open will always be bigger than any one player.
“Rory will be the first person to agree with that. We’ve had great champions here in this Open over the years, Nick Faldo, Seve, Langer, Olazabal, all the greats, they’ve all won it — Rory’s won it. And I think in 20 years time when Rory’s kind of winding down a little bit there will be another young Rory McIlroy coming along and that’s just the evolution.
“The game is always bigger than any one player and I think we’ve the validation of sell-out crowds this week that we’re anticipating, certainly his weekend, is an indication that we haven’t been too much affected by Rory not playing.”
There is plenty to whet the appetite of the knowledgeable Irish golf fans who will descend on Lahinch from today, for the Pro-Am, through four rounds of competitive golf and a field led by tournament favourite Jon Rahm of Spain, defending champion Russell Knox, Ryder Cup winners Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrell Hatton, Thorbjorn Olesen and Ian Poulter, and major champions Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen, not forgetting home favourites Shane Lowry, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, and Paul Dunne.
McGinley has strived to give them this week as ideal as possible a simulation of The Open set-up they will face on the Antrim coast in a fortnight.
“I’m wearing a number of hats here as host. And one of them is, I’m not going to say an ex-player, but a player who played a lot of Irish Opens and hopefully will play in the future, and one of the things, I’m a great believer in preparation and with The Open Championship in Northern Ireland, in Portrush in a couple weeks time, straightaway I always wanted to have a similar set-up here. And I got in touch with the R&A and Grant Moir, who does the set-up for them and he’s been great.
“And Miguel Viador, our tournament director, has been aligned. I’ve connected them all. We’ve had communication. Obviously we’re not copying exactly everything we do because of the different designs of the holes. But we have information on the greens speeds and we have information on the rough heights, the fairway widths, the run-off areas.
“I was up in Portrush myself last week and I’m a great believer in that and the players who come here will feel really well prepared to win a major championship in a few weeks time. That’s the plan.”
As a man whose attention to detail was one of the hallmarks of his successful Ryder Cup captaincy, McGinley has once again embraced the new challenge of hosting a tournament.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been stressful. It’s been fun. One of the things I’ve missed since the Ryder Cup captaincy, well, it was all of it. The captaincy was the end of the project. And that’s how I saw it, a project, putting it all together.
“There’s so many dimensions in golf. It’s like dominoes, and I see so many different dominoes reflect different things and course set-up and all the different elements that go into hosting or being the captain of the Ryder Cup, and so many different elements and hopefully then you tip one they all go together and that’s where you get your success. And that’s the way I’ve approached this one.
“All those things have like a separate agenda going on with each one with the idea that we click the dominoes and they all hopefully turn into a big success.”