SO THE WEEK of our national open is here. By Sunday, Ireland will have crowned its own Open champion.
The venue is Royal Portrush, a course that has not hosted an Irish Open since 1947. But with the success of Northern Irish golf over the past few years – Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke all winning Major championships – it is no surprise to see the Irish Open move back to the Antrim coast.
Already the tournament has been an unprecedented success. Last Thursday, the tickets for Saturday and Sunday of the event sold out. Yesterday it was announced that the Friday is now also sold out. It is the first time in the 40-year history of the European Tour that they have had to close ticket sales for an event with a daily capacity of 27,000.
That’s an awful lot of people set to see some golf this weekend. And great golf it is set to be. All the big Irish names are there – the aforementioned Major winning trio as well as Padraig Harrington.
This year’s tournament is also being graced by the presence of current USPGA Champion Keegan Bradley. It’s not that common for the bigger names from the States to travel over for the Irish Open, but Bradley is proud of his heritage and was quoted earlier in the year as saying that he has always wanted to “represent it in the Irish national championship”.
With the British Open also just a few weeks away, it is welcome preparation for Bradley as he gets to test himself on a links course. In fact, it is a little surprising that more has not been done in the past to host the Irish Open close to the British Open so that maybe some of the bigger names might come to play with the British Open in mind.
It would seem that the Irish Open, followed by the Scottish Open and then the British Open all in the space of three weeks would serve as an excellent sequence of events.
Obviously certain things would have to change, the most obvious being the European Tour schedule. There would also have to be certain guarantees that the Irish Open and Scottish Open would be held on links golf courses, as the British Open is.
But would those guarantees not be worth it for the opportunity that some of the biggest names in the world might come to play in those tournaments? If you’re a top player in America, you’re not playing a huge amount of links golf in a given season, so surely the opportunity to play two tournaments on links courses in the two weeks building up to a Major championship on a links course would be particularly appealing?
I know some players like to take a week off before a Major, others don’t, but even if there was a scattering of top players in both tournaments, it would give them both a significant boost.
As we well know, the Irish Open has struggled with sponsorship over recent years, but if the fields were to become stronger there is a good chance the sponsorship could become somewhat more competitive.
I’m not suggesting Tiger Woods is going to start playing in the Irish Open all of a sudden (even though he has often played links golf privately in Ireland to prepare for the British Open), but take somebody like Lee Westwood. Westwood is a man who obviously plays a busy schedule throughout the year and has to find the right balance between rest and play, particularly at a time of the year when the Majors come thick and fast.
Westwood is choosing the Alstom Open de France as his preparation for the British Open. Now I can’t speak for Westwood, but surely he would welcome the opportunity to play some links golf before in a tournament before the British Open. Yes, he could have played the Irish and Scottish Opens had he wanted, but it seems like he is giving preference to the schedule i.e. taking a two-week break after the US Open and playing two weeks before the British Open.
If the run in to the British Open took both the Irish and Scottish Opens in the preceding weeks, maybe Westwood would feature, and the tournament would benefit greatly from the presence of a player of that quality.
That said, let us not take away from the quality of the tournament we have in front of us this weekend. As far as I can count in the field, 10 Major champions are playing. That’s impressive.
With players of that quality in the field and on such a renowned golf course, we can be sure the winner will have seriously earned their victory. But let’s strike while the iron is hot. The event is attracting record attendances along with great players and this needs to be used as a stepping stone to make the Irish Open an even bigger and better tournament, one we all know it can be.