Lahinch felt responsibility to Clare and West to stage Open

As the chairman of the Lahinch Golf Club Tournament Committee, John Gleeson has already visualised the packed grandstand behind his club’s 18th green as the champion-elect strides along the par-five final hole with a throng of spectators in his wake and hundreds more teeming up the Liscannor Road on the other side of the wall.

Lahinch felt responsibility to Clare and West to stage Open

As the chairman of the Lahinch Golf Club Tournament Committee, John Gleeson has already visualised the packed grandstand behind his club’s 18th green as the champion-elect strides along the par-five final hole with a throng of spectators in his wake and hundreds more teeming up the Liscannor Road on the other side of the wall.

It could be a landmark scene for Irish golf every bit as iconic as the course that will this week stage the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and Gleeson is confident tournament host Paul McGinley, the famous links and the Co. Clare town whose borders it sits within, are more than up to the task of delivering that vision.

The thousands of spectators who are set to descend on this section of the Wild Atlantic Way will include many who have played this course themselves over the years as will a good number of the worldwide television audience who have placed Lahinch on their golfing bucket list of places to play. Yet none of them will have seen the place as it is this week, with that Liscannor Road, which runs the length of the 17th and 18th holes, closed to traffic, marquees along its other side, a TV compound on the prom and grandstands behind both the 18th green and first tee box.

“People will arrive who know Lahinch but they’ll see something dramatically different this week,” Gleeson told the Irish Examiner. “I think it’s looking really spectacular.

I think it has the makings of a spectacular setting for a finale and the fact that so many people know this course and will have played it will greatly heighten the interest of the week.

A year ago, the European Tour broke new ground by taking the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open to Donegal for the first time and by doing so casting a global spotlight on one of Ireland’s great golfing secrets at Ballyliffin.

Lahinch is an altogether different prospect and though this is also an Irish Open debut for the course, this classic Alister MacKenzie design could hardly be considered a hidden treasure. Its familiarity and accessibility to the golfing public both here in Ireland and overseas begs the enquiry — just what is in this venture for Lahinch Golf Club and its members.

“Well, that’s a very good question,” Gleeson replied. “Lahinch is thriving as a club. We still have challenges around finances, namely the very high cost of rock armour (man-placed sea defences), which we put a lot of money into, but Lahinch is actually looking for less green fees and more members’ time, we’re not looking for any more members.

“The club agreed to have its name considered by the European Tour firstly because Paul, as the host and as a former South of Ireland champion, asked. As the club looked at it we realised this iconic course should have an Irish Open to celebrate the course as it is.

“There is certainly no commercial advantage to the club but the wider issue of County Clare featured very large in the council’s decision to allow our name to go forward. I think we felt a responsibility.

“The West of Ireland has never had an event like this — maybe the Volvo Ocean Race in Galway (in 2012) was somewhat similar, but we feel Clare have bought into it and it’s that responsibility we feel.

“And if I might go slightly larger, a responsibility to golf that this iconic course which so many people have played, so many Irish people but also from the US. We have around 350 overseas members but so many visitors have played Lahinch and the club has a wider responsibility than just the members themselves.

“In fairness to the members, they have really bought into having this. It’s quite disruptive. It will be closed for three weeks, two before the event and the week itself and there’s other issues with mats and all of that but the membership have bought into the wider vision of why this iconic course should have this event because this is sponsored by Dubai Duty Free, it’s a Rolex Series Irish Open and this is one of Europe’s biggest tournaments and consequently one of the biggest in the world. Lahinch owes it to the community and to ourselves to showcase what we have.”

Such altruism, free of financial expectations, allows Lahinch to stage a more purist Irish Open, it is suggested to Gleeson.

“I suppose! From a purist’s point of view this is an old iconic course that means so much to a lot of people and it allows us unpressurised to try and put our very best foot forward to showcase this to the world and at the same time the Wild Atlantic Way and the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren and all of the other things that Clare has to offer. It is a chance to showcase those to a TV audience in excess of 500 million.

“In the purest sense, this great golf course showcased to the world is a marvellous thing but also from Paul McGinley’s vision as a host, to have a festival atmosphere, that the village is so involved in the course and the course in the village. The main street in the town will close in the late afternoon, early evening for five or six hours to make sure we’re able to bring that festival atmosphere correctly and safely with lots of entertainment and family entertainment and Clare County Council has been instrumental in that.”

It sounds an ambitious hope, particularly given early concerns that Lahinch, both the town and the course would be unable to cope with the demands of such an event and the numbers an Irish Open would attract. Gleeson has a counter to that argument.

When it was first announced, a lot of people looked at the negatives, ‘how can it accommodate all these people, the traffic, parking’, all of that. But with the assistance of the council and the gardaí we’re comfortable and the European Tour are very experienced at doing this.

"We’ve got really good park and ride facilities in place, quite close to the course, to bus people in from those and the gardaí are quite comfortable with the traffic plan.

“We will anticipate up to 25,000 people a day, with quite wide support from the rest of Munster and also the Midlands following (Offalyman) Shane Lowry. We’re confident the course has such great vantage points and it can handle those numbers while the wider infrastructure, the park and ride and the traffic management we have in place, we’re not concerned.”

Aside from providing European Tour golfers with the best platform to deliver a memorable tournament, tournament chairman Gleeson’s ultimate objective is to send those thousands of spectators home from Lahinch in a certain state of mind.

“We want them to go home after a good day’s golf saying, quite simply, ‘that was a great day, a fun day’.

“We have a strong field, people will have great stars to watch on the iconic course that is Lahinch and the craic down the town and the festival atmosphere, even to the extent we hope the surf schools will be operating and there will be people out there surfing — if it’s windy we’ll have kite surfers — and that whole thing building. So it’s that people will walk away and say ‘that was a great day’.

“A great golfing day but also a great family day as well, and we think it’s achievable. The club has set the bar high and everything stems from Paul wanting to come here with his vision and what he achieved in the Ryder Cup was I think pretty unique and he is bringing that to this. We have bought into that too, to try and make this really special and a benchmark for what an Irish Open can be.

“We’re comfortable that we’ve set the bar so high and we think we can achieve a really, really successful event. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

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