By Kevin Markham
It was blowing a gale in Ballyliffin. Golf balls were oscillating on the green as we were stung by winds of 50mph and horizontal rain, and any and every aerial shot was in the lap of the gods.
It was the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open media day, and there was over 50 media personnel playing the Glashedy Links in the toughest conditions imaginable.
The most photographed hole on Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula is Glashedy’s par three seventh, which plays from the highest point of the course to a green far below, nestled up against a natural pond. No one was too worried about photographs that day as standing upright was a challenge. The seventh had been chosen as the ‘Nearest The Pin’ hole… but that evening no one claimed the prize. Out of 50 or so golfers — including some very low handicappersn — not one person had found the green.
The conditions were tough and the links Pat Ruddy designed is not easy (no Pat Ruddy course is). All I could think was that I hope the pros face at least one day like this when the Irish Open starts on Thursday. If the forecasters are right, it appears unlikely.
Last year, at Portstewart, the weather was mild… and on a course with short par fives it provided a birdie and eagle-fest that saw Jon Rahm run away with the tournament, with a record-breaking 24 under par.
As enjoyable as it is to see birdie and eagle putts drop every other minute, watching professionals having to battle against the elements is far more rewarding: You get to watch them do it the hard way… so you can appreciate how good they really are, playing links golf as it is meant to be played.
A list of the top professionals has attracted golf fans from across Ireland.
Rory McIlroy may lead the charge of the big names (he’s as likely to win as he is to make the cut after his last four appearances) and Jon Rahm will be back to defend his title, but there are many more: Rafa Cabrera Bello, Thorbjorn Olesen, Haotong Li, Lee Westwood, Matt Fitzpatrick, and Peter Uihlein among them.
And then there are the Irish favourites: Harrington always draws a crowd, while Shane Lowry will want to repeat his feat of 2009.
“It will always have a special place in my heart for obvious reasons. It launched my career when I won it as an amateur and I would love nothing more than to win it again as a pro.”
Paul Dunne has already had an impressive year and sees the Irish Open as something special.
“The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open is the tournament we look forward to the most,” he said last month. “To win it would be right up there with the four Majors for me personally.”
Many more will fill the field in pursuit of the $7m (€6.0m) prize fund on offer through the European Tour’s top-tier Rolex Series. So what’s ahead:
Ballyliffin Golf Club
Ballyliffin is Ireland’s most northerly golf club, awash with beauty and rippling dunes that promise the perfect landscape for golf.
The old course was created in 1973, exploring the lower dunes closer to the sea. Nature dictated the layout (guided by Eddie Hackett) and the lack of budget ensured that the crumpled fairways were left alone. They are one of the Old’s most charming features.
It was little wonder that then world No. 1 Nick Faldo fell in love with the place when he arrived by helicopter in 1993, just weeks after winning the Open Championship.
In 1995, the Glashedy Links was opened and it is the Glashedy that tends to take top billing when Ballyliffin is discussed. And that will continue as the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open rolls into town. Bigger dunes, more modern flair, and a tougher examination are what the tour pros can expect when they tee up on the 7,400 yard links.
There have been several changes to the course since the club began its efforts to attract the Irish Open. New tees have been introduced, adding 252 yards to the course. These include the par five 4th which has been extended 117 yards, to 590 yards. The tee is so far back it’s on another property. Four other holes (2, 7, 9, 14) have also been lengthened.
“The tees they play off will be dictated by the weather conditions. We wanted to make sure we have a course that will test the players to the best of their abilities, whatever the weather conditions.”
While the rain and wind I hoped for seem a remote possibility during this exceptional spell of Irish weather, perhaps the baked, slick fairways will prove just as troublesome.
The Glashedy’s 90 bunkers have all been newly revetted over the winter, with new bunkers added to the first, second and third holes. New bunker sand was also added in May. The scale of the bunkering work alone is phenomenal, especially as the pot bunkers are not of the small variety.
Most links courses revet three to four holes a year, not all 18.
Practice facilities have been enhanced, pathways added for golfers and spectators alike, and the ground floor of the clubhouse has been renovated with upgraded changing rooms, showers and a new Pro shop.
All of these efforts emphasise the seriousness with which Ballyliffin and the region are taking this tournament. After all, this will be televised globally and there’s little doubt that the beauty of the golf club and the Inishowen Peninsula will inspire an anticipated 420m viewing households around the world.
For those who want to experience Ballyliffin and the tournament first hand, tickets are on sale at www.europeantour.com/tickets and begin at €20 for tomorrow’s Pro-Am, rising to €32 for Thursday and Friday, and €34 on Saturday and Sunday. Children up to 13 years of age gain free entry when accompanied by an adult.
You only have to look back a few years to appreciate that the Irish Open was struggling as a European Tour event. In 2011, Simon Dyson won €250,000; last year, John Rahm won just over €1m.
Thanks to Rory McIlroy’s considerable support and that of his Rory Foundation, alongside the lead sponsorship of Dubai Duty Free, the Irish Open is an altogether bigger affair. Bigger money, bigger names, bigger ranking points.
In addition to being one of the European Tour’s eight top-tier Rolex Series events and, alongside being moved to the highly sought after slot two weeks ahead of the Open Championship, the biggest indicator of the Irish Open’s growing reputation came in May, when Dubai Duty Free announced its continuing sponsorship to 2020, with an option to extend it to 2022.
It first began sponsoring the tournament in 2015, at Royal Co Down. When you consider that the company estimates the Irish Open generated $47.7m (€41.1m) worth of TV exposure for the brand in 2017, its ongoing sponsorship is not that surprising.
Beyond the Irish Open, golfers who want to venture this way will find plenty of courses to choose from in Donegal, as well as on the Inishowen Peninsula itself.
North West Golf Club, outside Buncrana, is a links of low cunning and pure, natural greens. It is also one of the founding members of the GUI. Buncrana is a wild nine holer next door, beside the sea, and Greencastle sits on the shores of Lough Foyle, on the other side of the peninsula. If you take the ferry from Magilligan Point (Co Derry) to Greencastle to reach Ballyliffin, you can see the course and its lighthouse in the distance.
Ferries have been doubled for the Irish Open, to cater for the crowds.
And don’t ignore the rest of Co Donegal which is second only to Kerry for the quality of its links courses, and undoubtedly rivals it for beauty. The links courses at Portsalon and Rosapenna are on the opposite shore of Lough Swilly before the coastline captures Dunfanaghy, Cruit Island, Gweedore, Narin & Portnoo, Donegal and Bundoran, as you head west along the Wild Atlantic Way.
“It’s huge for us,” said John Farren, one of the key architects in bringing the Irish Open to Ballyliffin. “I’ve compared it to Donegal staging the World Cup. That’s how big a deal it is in terms of the exposure we are going to get.
“It’s long overdue but we intend to take our moment in the sun.”
And it looks like there will be plenty of that.