This is the second year where McIlroy is involved as the tournament host
There’s a lot to admire about Rory McIlroy. He’s the ultimate story of the poor boy who made good, rising as high as it is possible for a golfer to rise.
We like to believe that people should be carried regularly to considerable success on the strength of their talent alone. But it happens far less often than we imagine.
To that end, McIlroy is a lot more than a once-in-a-generation athlete and that he has hitched his wagon to Ireland and the Irish Open can only be a good thing for the event and the many charitable causes he supports via the Rory Foundation.
There is a toll to be paid along the way, of course and there will be those who perceive that the event is now the Rory Open.
That perception isn’t helped by Thursday’s Sky Sports coverage, which is ignoring early starters such as Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry and opted to start wall-to-wall afternoon coverage of McIlroy from midday rather than its traditional morning and afternoon sessions.
The two session format will be back in place on Friday when McIlroy tees off with Andy Sullivan and Soren Kjeldsen at 8.30 am. But that’s only to be expected when the tournament host wields such power that the prize fund has doubled since last year.
A quick look back at the recent history of the Irish Open shows that this is an event that was on the brink of extinction just a few years ago, when Fáilte Ireland and principally, the European Tour, had to dig deep into their pockets to find the cash to stage the tournament given there was no title sponsor.
McIlroy’s first appearance, and his best finish to date, came in a sponsor less 2008 Irish Open at Adare Manor, where he was seventh behind Richard Finch.
Rory McIlroy at the 2008 Irish Open. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan
As McIlroy grew in stature as a player, the demands and expectations placed on him at the Irish Open increased exponentially and, as he admitted on interest, the event almost became a burden.
He had to find a way to rekindling his interest in his home event and by attaching his foundation to the tournament, he killed three birds with one stone.
Not only is he helping the less fortunate while increasing his desire to play his home event, he’s also creating huge event for his fellow professionals to contest.
While Lough Erne will feel aggrieved that McIlroy did not back the decision by the tour to take the Irish Open there next year, a move towards more links golf is clearly aimed at moving the event nearer to The Open Championship.
Portstewart is hotly tipped to host the championship next year, Ballyliffin hopes to stage the Irish Open the week before The Open in 2019. And while there is some doubt that Fáilte Ireland will still be involved, McIlroy clearly has big plans for the event’s future.
Speaking about his decision not to write player IOUs this year (hence the absence of Rickie Fowler, Ernie Els or Sergio Garcia), McIlroy his strategy in an interview with Off the Ball’s Nathan Murphy earlier this week.
"I think we are trying to build this tournament to where I am not going to have to ask these guys to come and play,” he said. "For example, I am going to Switzerland to help Sergio out with a day in July. I am going to the South African Open at the end of this year/start of next year for Ernie (Els).
Sergio Garcia played at last year's Irish Open but he is not competing this year. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Presseye/Andrew Paton
“The week [last year's Irish Open] took quite a lot out of me so I don't really want to keep writing IOUs to people for coming to play in the Irish Open. So that is why we are trying to build this event up. If you look at it, €4 million this year and hopefully we are going to increase that prize fund a lot over the next few years and make it one of the most prestigious tournaments on the European Tour…”
There is clearly a links strategy going forward as McIlroy confirmed.
“A good links course definitely entices people to come over and play,” he said. “If we can get the Irish Open to a links course every year and a suitable date so the guys coming from America can stay here in Europe and build up to the Open Championship, I think that would be ideal.
“But that's three or four years down the line. That's the overall plan and hopefully we can achieve that."
Representatives from Ballyliffin met with European Tour chief Keith Pelley this week to propose a joint north-south staging in July 2019 with both Donegal County Council and Strabane-Derry City Council offering financial support.
With McIlroy pushing the event, a staging at a remote site such as Donald Trump’s Doonbeg in 2018 could even work and the five star venue would certainly appeal to the players and their families.
In short, the Irish Open is going places with McIlroy in the driver’s seat.