Time for Tour to shape its own future with European swing

The Irish Open is a subject and tournament close to my heart, not just because I’ve been fortunate to play in it but because it has, at best, only limped along, with its sponsor status never fully guaranteed from year to year.

In order for the Irish Open to consistently create the necessary foundations for growth, it needs absolute commitment and support from many sides — the Irish players, the European Tour, the sponsors, the venues and of course, the general public. Most importantly, it needs the support of both political establishments in the 32 counties.

Assuming that goodwill is there, someone or somebody needs to be strong enough to create the necessary vision and to project manage its delivery. For many years this has been a grey area and the Irish Open has suffered for it but not any more, it seems.

Once Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 1 — declared his ambition for his own foundation to host the Irish Open, he created the necessary opportunity for change and while it is too simplistic to say that McIlroy has simply followed the movie “Field of Dreams” most famous line “If you build it, they will come”, no one can doubt his absolute commitment to what he describes as his own “fifth major”.

One should congratulate McIlroy for his sheer courage and imagination. Undoubtedly, he has used his status and stardom to affect change — but in attempting to do so he has also walked the hard yards — personally negotiating with star players for their attendance and the sponsors for their support with refreshing honesty. His ambition to keep things simple is almost an attitude of times gone by, but by keeping it that way he has delivered a stellar field capable of gracing any tournament in the world — and in “Dubai Duty Free” a sponsor capable of realising the long- term aspirations of the Irish Open.

In doing so, McIlroy has also created a possible template for the European Tour’s new chief executive Keith Pelley to adopt with its other high-profile European players in their own countries of birth.

While taking away nothing from the European Tour, Pelley’s appointment will be seen by many as an opportunity to transform the Tour, by giving sponsors and indeed its own membership, the players more ownership in key events. He will want quick wins (while gradually transforming the European Tour structures behind the scenes) and for that he should talk to high-profile players, like McIlroy, as well as key Tour sponsors. His greatest opportunity lies in Europe itself — that being to create a bumper European swing of tournaments much in the mould of what we currently see in other areas around the globe. For example, if you currently look at the schedule of the European players who play a worldly schedule, it goes something like this:

January

- Asia;

Feb to April

- USA (Masters & WGC events);

May-Early June

- Europe (PGA & ?);

June

- USA (US Open & WGC event);

July

- Europe (Open Championship & ?);

August

- USA (PGA Championship & WGC Event);

September

- USA (Fed Ex Cup);

October

- Europe (British Masters - Dunhill Cup);

November

- Eastern Europe/Asia & Race to Dubai.

Most high-profile players will base their schedules around the major championships and the WGC events and, as the schedule shows, the European Tour has limited opportunities to actually have its players playing on European soil. May, early June and July are therefore the obvious opportunities to create a bumper European swing and Pelley must seize the moment for the European Tour to reclaim momentum using a model similar to what Rory has brought to the table this week.

Part of that initiative could be, for example, that each tournament in the “European Swing” will have a minimum purse of €5 million and the swing will compose of six tournament to be played in May, June and July. So if we look at these dates, then a schedule like this is possible:

May/Early June

- PGA Championship (Tour flagship event); French Open (supported by French players and French Ryder Cup bid); High-profile German tournament (supported and hosted by Martin Kaymer and Bernhard Langer);

July

– The Links Swing: Irish Open (hosted by Rory McIlroy), Scottish Open (hosted by Scottish players, government and sponsors) and The Open Championship.

While understanding that the European Tour’s mandate is to facilitate a playing schedule for all of its players, it is nonetheless vitally important for its own profile and wellbeing that it also creates the right reasons for its star players to play a bigger schedule in Europe during these key months as it can not achieve this objective at any other time of the year.

And so to this week. The stage is set for the Irish Open to return to Royal Co Down for the first time in 76 years. That’s too long for a golf course consistently rated as being one of the very best in Ireland but Royal Co Down can take solace from the fact this is undoubted the highest calibre field the Irish Open has ever hosted. McIlroy counts this week as his fifth major. To date, his Irish Open record suggests little in terms of his true ability and given his sponsor and media commitments this week, it would be a truly remarkable feat were he to prevail. So what can we expect?

Given the weather conditions are set to be cool and breezy, the players will get a true test of links golf. That said, Royal Co Down hasn’t added any extra length to the course in terms of new tee boxes, and given that we are just out of winter, the rough will be fair.

The true test will come from the players establishing the right lines in breezy conditions to many of the blind dog-leg holes. In doing so they will, uniquely for a links course, also have to hit the ball high in the air in order to fly the high dunes and to land softly on the firm bouncy fairways.

Once that is accomplished, their next test is in strategising the best approach to greens — all of which have run-offs at the back, exposing the ball to all sorts of trouble.

So local knowledge, or a sound game plan, an abundance of patience and a great short game are the keys for success for any player this week.

The calibre of the field suggests we are going to have a terrific tournament and Co Down will keep the players honest.

Hopefully we will have an Irishman in the mix come Sunday. That would be the icing on the cake for what promises to be an exceptional tournament.


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