Portrush, ho! Notes on the Irish Open
By Conor Nagle under European PGA Tour


In the decade since the advent of the WGCs, many of Europe’s most prestigious national championships have struggled to retain their place on the European Tour calendar.

A paucity of sponsorship, a distracted cohort (understandably) in thrall of world ranking points, geographic alienation: each has played a part in re-engineering the continent’s golfing hierarchy.

Once a modest democracy, a nine-month calendar of uniformly remunerative events, the European Tour, in its current form, resembles something approaching a feudal kingdom.

It’s a circuit without a middle order, a system distorted and polarised by the unfathomable wealth of a select few.

In the case of the Irish Open, that redistribution of power has worked in tandem with the economic crisis (here’s a handy explanation!) to fashion a turbulent recent history of failed sponsorship, dwindling crowds and weak fields.

It’s been grim.

Lacking a title sponsor, the organisers of this year’s event began their preparation in the belief that only the most unqualified of successes, in commercial and historic terms, would prove sufficient to guarantee its future.

In that sense, the selection of Royal Portrush proved a stroke of genius.

Pandemonium! The scrum for a McIlroy autograph.

In addition to being the spiritual home of Northern Ireland’s golfing renaissance – Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and current British Amateur champion Alan Dunbar are all members – Portrush can lay claim to being the island’s most enduring links design.

Attractive to players, then, it also afforded organisers the chance to capitalise on the rabid enthusiasm of local supporters, whose appreciation of the professional game has, for decades now, lacked an appropriate outlet.

The result was success on a scale hitherto unseen on the European Tour:

  • The tournament became the first non-major event in Tour history to register a total sellout. Somewhere in the region of 130,000 spectators attended Royal Portrush over the course of the week.
  • The field included 10 major winners, included reigning USPGA champion Keegan Bradley. He’d miss the 36-hole cut after rounds of 73 and 71, but that’s beside the point…
  • World No.2 Rory McIlroy was present in body, if not quite in game.
  • The pro-am, attended by a number of celebs (including noted pro-am whore Bill Murray), drew a crowd of 14,000.

The tournament may not have yielded a headline-grabbing winner (Jamie Donaldson did produce a headline-worthy performance, however), but that remains – with the exception of minor grumbles about the soft conditions  – just about the only reasonable complaint or criticism that can be made.

There were birdies by the bucketful; tee shots struck against majestic, dunescaped backdrops; a resurgent Padraig Harrington and, of course, the most telegenic of links layouts.

Deprived of the factors that propelled last week’s event into the record books, next year’s tournament at Carton House is unlikely to rival its immediate predecessor for substance or excitement.

But in reaching a generational high at Portrush, the tournament may well have secured its survival for several years.

In an era of profound uncertainty, shaped by the European Tour’s imperial project and the whims of petrodollar billionaires, that’s likely as enduring a legacy as can be hoped for.

Conor Nagle