Englishman Sam Walker teed off alone with only a marker for company as Saturday’s Irish Open action began at 7.50am.
There were plenty of fans at Portstewart Golf Club at that early hour but Sam was not the main attraction.
The Championship Village, an area of stallholders, food concessions and the music stage, was in full swing in anticipation of the final rugby match of the British and Irish Lions tour. The game was being shown live on the big screens and while golf has its sedate moments interjected with raucous applause and cheers, rugby matches are full on from the moment the first whistle blows.
Those in the Championship Village adapted quickly to their new surroundings and Elliot Daly’s long range penalty to start the second half was greeted by roars of approval.
By the time Walker finished, two hours and 45 minutes later, the rugby was over and golf was once again the star of the show.
The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open is no longer just about golfers shooting low scores because there is much, much more going on.
In recent years — thanks, particularly to Rory McIllroy’s involvement and the more open approach of The European Tour — the nature of the tournament has evolved considerably.
All sorts of events take place in the build-up to the tournament, with many focused on schools and children.
One obvious example is the ‘Roar for Rory’ campaign, which saw the winning school (from Belfast) receive a visit from the Irish Open trophy, while two more winners received a family pass for the Pro-Am and a VIP tour.
Such incentives are targeted at the future generations of the game, which is crucial given how national participation is falling across the younger age brackets.
At the event itself, fans got stuck into all manner of things and live coverage of the Lions rugby match was just one of the ways that the European Tour is attempting to engage with fans.
“Given the huge level of interest and anticipation locally, we felt it only right that we should do our level best to make sure that when two great sporting occasions coincide, fans don’t have to make a difficult decision by having to choose one over the other, hence our live Sky Sports screening of the Lions decider,” said Simon Alliss, Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Championship Director.
Another addition was the music stage where popular bands (Two Door Cinema Club and Scouting For Girls, among them) and local musicians kept the evening crowds entertained.
On late Saturday afternoon, after the golf was finished, over 300 people gathered to hear one of the acts. What better way to end a stunning day of golf and weather than with sunshine, music, friends and a beer.
But there was plenty more to enjoy and the Kids Park and the Bank of Ireland Skills Zone, located a brief walk away from the Village, proved exceptionally popular with families and the many busloads of kids that arrived during the week.
“We’ve been very busy,” said Ben, who was managing the area. “We had well over 1,000 people on Saturday. The Long Putt Challenge has been popular and the six PGA Pros have been rushed off their feet. We even had Thomas Bjorn drop by and he gave a lady tips for 10 minutes. We have a special area for kids, too, but the adults are using it just as much.”
One youngster going through their paces on the artificial putting green was completely enamoured. “I want to hit the ball as far as Rory,” eight-year-old Fintan Sheedy said, not willing to let go of his club for a second. He’ll need to switch his putter for something bigger if he’s going to achieve that dream.
Is this not the perfect environment in which to introduce kids to the thrills of golf? Take them out to see the Pros hitting shots, let them absorb the thrills and then take them to the Kids Park and Skills Zone to try it for themselves. Wouldn’t it be something if a future champion turned around and pinpointed a childhood visit to the Irish Open as the inspiration for taking up the game?
The stalls scattered around the Championship Village also attracted visitors, even if the numbers weren’t earth shattering.
“It’s quality, not quantity,” said Phil Coates, from Golf Wales. The value of golf to the Welsh economy has grown from £3.2m (€3.61m) in 2003 to over £46m(€51.9m) in 2015. Exhibition stalls at prestigious events like these have clearly helped to boost the profile of what the country has to offer.
There were 20 exhibitor stalls aimed at distracting the 80,000 golf fans who poured through the gates during the four-day tournament. Even with the various freebies, challenges (e.g. putting and chipping) and prize draws for weekend breaks footfall was light.
The Championship Village layout did not please all the stallholders with the natural flow of fans passing them by all too easily.
That wasn’t, however, the case for everyone.
“We sold out of gilets (£69 and £79 jackets) on Saturday and most of the ladies wear has gone, too,” Barry informed me in the official European Tour merchandising store on Sunday. “Caps have sold well and, um, umbrellas are selling well today.”
The numerous catering trucks beside the Village and elsewhere around the course also attracted the punters especially on the sun-filled Saturday.
“It was our best day by far,” said Sheila, from the Country Bite food truck positioned beside the 7th fairway. “Nothing like a bit of sun to make people happy… and hungry.”
And what about the fans? Were they happy with the tournament?
“This is the best-run event I have attended — we’ve been really impressed,” Brian Shaw said. He came over with five friends from Livingston in Scotland to follow Stephen Gallacher, and play golf. “Most of our time has been spent on the course and we’ve had no problems getting around. This is an amazing place… never seen dunes like it.”
“I had no idea there would be so much for the kids to do. “Susie Byrne, from Belfast, came up for the day with Ben, aged 10, and Sylvia, 13. “I thought the ticket price was a bit steep but the kids got in free and they’ve loved it. They have tried everything at least once. It’s been a great day.”
The beer tents were a big success — there was one in the middle of the course — and there weren’t any issues with ‘overenthusiastic behaviour.’
The stands around greens and tees were popular and while there were no holes in one on the 15th, where a BMW was the prize, holes in one were recorded on the 3rd (Peter Hanson) and 6th (Joost Luiten).
There was even a rare albatross by Matteo Manassero on the 7th… so anyone lucky enough to see those will have a memory for life.
And anyone lucky enough to follow 22-year-old Jon Rahm will have been blown away by his talent and the way he just pulled away from the field on the final day. His eagle on the 4th, holed from 150 yards, was a sucker punch to everyone else ahead of him.
As the curtain came down on another thrilling Irish Open, thanks to the sounds of Scouting for Girls on the music stage, perhaps the spirit of this Irish Open is summed up best, not by the remarkable performances on the golf course but by those off it: The volunteers manning the Park & Ride facilities smiled; the marshals tirelessly shepherded their flocks of spectators to and from the course; and an honourable mention goes to the bus driver who took detours to drop off spectators and returned via a different route to deposit two lost fans at a different car park. Everyone was willing and helpful, and there was an incredible buzz that lasted all week. As it turns out, losing Rory for the weekend was only a minor blip.
If you’re disappointed that you didn’t go this year then there’s always next year… when it will be even farther north in the wilds of Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula.
Ballyliffin is the 2018 host, with dates set for July 5-8, and early bird tickets (€25 for daily tickets, €60 for a week’s season ticket) on sale now.
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