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Mount Juliet says No, but minister says Yes

14 December, 2008

Mount Juliet says No, but minister says Yes

14th December 2008

Mount Juliet said 'no' to Irish Open three times but Cullen went on a reckless solo run anyway

After informing the European Tour on at least three occasions since mid-October that they would be unable to stage next year's Irish Open, Mount Juliet have made the matter official. They were forced to do so in the wake of last week's announcement by Minister for Arts, Tourism and Sport, Martin Mullen, that they were the chosen venue for the event.

To describe that announcement as a surprise to those at Mount Juliet, would be a considerable understatment. They were especially perplexed by the Minister's decision to go public with the matter before consulting them.

So, only days after the 2009 Irish Open became secure under a three-year title sponsorship by the mobile phone company 3, it is without a venue. And according to Mount Juliet's greens superintendent Aidan O'Hara, there are only "three or four courses in the country" which could stage such an event at short notice.

At this stage, a links course could present the most viable option, with long-time home of the Irish Open, Portmarnock, a most desirable choice. It will be recalled that the tournament returned there in 2003 after a 13-year absence, at the specific request of Nissan chief Gerard O'Toole before his company came on board as co-sponsors.

In these times of seriously falling green-fee revenues, I understand that Portmarnock would be happy to consider stepping into the breach.

Interestingly, there were protests from women's equality groups on the occasion of the 2003 staging and, arising from those protests, the Equality Authority took a High Court action against the all-male club, and lost, before Mr Justice Kevin O'Higgins. Their appeal against that decision is due to be heard by the Supreme Court on Thursday.

Other venues capable of stepping into the breach are Adare Manor, which had two very successful stagings of the Irish Open in 2007 and last May, and The K Club. Royal Dublin, which filled such a role late in 1982 after Portmarnock had voted against playing host to the 1983 tournament, could also come under consideration. Their course is clearly strong enough, but space and accessibility could pose problems.

Meanwhile, the Minister's enthusiasm for the project is understandable, given the almost constant stream of bad news which has seemed to emanate from Government Buildings in recent weeks. He also happens to be a keen golfer, playing off 13 handicap at Waterford GC where he has been an honorary member since 2002, having originally joined in 1989. In fact, he holds the very rare distinction of having holed in one on the 130-yard third twice in six days. As a bonus, both of them were in club competitions.

In his anxiety to get the good news of the Irish Open into the public domain, however, he embarked on a somewhat reckless solo run. I happened to be one of four golf writers to whom he made the announcement prior to the Renault Sports Stars Awards Banquet at the Burlington Hotel last Monday night.

George O'Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, was at the same function. And when I spoke with him the following morning in London, where we had both travelled for a Tour lunch, he had no knowledge of Minister Cullen's announcement. Mind you, he wasn't complaining, given that it represented official confirmation of the Government's support of the event which was without a sponsor since the withdrawal of Adare Manor, following the victory by England's Richard Finch last May.

While O'Grady was en route to London, his deputy, Richard Hills, was travelling in the opposite direction to finalise the Irish Open deal with the Minister.

In the event, the news broke in our national newspapers on Wednesday morning. Over the next 48 hours, I made repeated attempts to contact Mount Juliet officials but without success. Which seemed decidedly strange. One would have expected them to be positively thrilled at being restored to the tournament fold, having had their second staging of the WGC American Express Championship four years ago, when Ernie Els was successful.

The European Tour's enthusiasm for the venue could be gleaned from the reaction of their tournament director, John Paramor, after Tiger Woods won the American Express in 2002. "This is the standard everybody in golf has to aspire to," he said. "I have not seen better greens anywhere in the world. And I have had numerous, unsolicited comments from players endorsing that view, players who want us to take the tournament back here." So, the Tour had no hesitation in calling Mount Juliet in mid-October.

O'Hara, acknowledged as the country's best at what he does, said of that approach: "It could be done but because of the early date, I'm afraid we wouldn't have been able to achieve the condition for the American Express event or for the Irish Open, when it was held in mid-summer. We can get frost down here well up to the third week in April and it's only then that growth starts to kick in. So the greens wouldn't be up to previous standards and the rough would be thin."

Typically proud of his craft, he concluded: "There's no doubt we could present the course better than most European Tour venues, but it wouldn't be the Mount Juliet standard. And that would hurt a bit."

This is essentially what O'Hara told his directors when they consulted him regarding the Tour's approach. And after taking other issues into consideration, they opted out. Still the Tour came back and still Mount Juliet were insistent. They could not stage the event in the prevailing circumstances.

Timing was crucial. From an emotional standpoint, there was the fact that the venue's founder, owner and greatest enthusiast, Dr Tim Mahony, died only last summer. Then there was the fact that Ballylynch Stud, which can be seen across the River Nore from the front of the hotel, is used for car-parking for important tournaments. During May, it would be dominated by highly-valuable mares about to foal.

In this context, any upset caused by the disturbance of cars parking, could result in problems for these thoroughbreds with hugely expensive consequences. Finally, there was the issue of advance bookings in the hotel, quite apart from an inevitable outlay in excess of €200,000 for bringing the overall facility up to tournament standard.

Against this background, it was extremely difficult to see how they could have benefited.

I understand that the reason for their delay in reaching a decision on the matter was a fear that they might be seen as somehow obstructive to what is clearly a splendid development for Irish golf. In different circumstances, they would have jumped at the opportunity but on this occasion the timing was wrong and the Minister's announcement took them totally unawares.

On the credit side, choosing a venue has never been a problem in the staging of Irish Opens. The important thing is that there is a solid new sponsor in place.

And in case you've wondered, the official announcement of the new deal is to be made within the next few days. (click here for news update)



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