Lahinch will ‘stand on its own two feet’ for Irish Open

Even those with a great love and admiration for the club and the village believe that Lahinch has undertaken a mountainous challenge in agreeing to stage the 2019 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Championship.

The sceptics point to a perceived shortage of space around strategic parts of the famous links, its vulnerability to the massive ball striking of the modern professionals and perhaps most of all how the anticipated huge amount of traffic can be accommodated on the narrow, windy roads of West Clare.

Charlie Mulqueen put these points and several more to John Gleeson, Chairman of the Irish Open Championship committee, and discovered that many of these problems have already been confronted and suitably addressed in good time for the first week of July next year.

Charlie Mulqueen: Some people with the best will in the world towards Lahinch Golf Club were surprised that tournament host Paul McGinley and Simon Alliss of the European Tour gave the thumbs up to Lahinch after their visit last February. But of course there are many who see nothing but positives about the occasion.

John Gleeson: “The chief executive of Clare County Council Pat Dowling and chief superintendent for Clare John Kerins attended the recent championship at Ballyliffin. They spent three days up there and I cannot overemphasise how hugely supportive and helpful they have been.

European Tour chief Keith Pelley came to stay and play in Lahinch on the Friday of Ballyliffin. We organised for him what we would feel was the Lahinch experience, as in, drinks here in the club after the golf, stay in Vaughan’s Lodge, go down the town for dinner in Flanagan’s, walked him up the main street, walked him down the prom.

“And he kept talking about the uniqueness of the place and how the golf course sits in the village and the village sits in the golf course. He felt it could be a unique Irish Open and that’s what we are really going to do our best to turn it into.”

CM: A fascinated and deeply interested public wants to know how it’s all going to pan out successfully and the rumour machine mill has been working overtime. For example, we hear Tiger Woods is definitely playing, that he will stay at his friend JP McManus’s Adare Manor and helicopter to Lahinch each day.

JG: “I have heard that from several people who categorically told me that Tiger Woods is coming. I don’t know anything about that and I’m not sure Tiger knows anything about it either. We would obviously adore to have Tiger or Phil Mickelson and so on coming here. Phil is an honorary overseas member of the club and has already been written to.”

The 6th at Lahinch

CM: Martin O’Sullivan, recent past president of the IRFU and an enthusiastic club member, has accepted the role as chief marshal. No doubt you and he and general manager Paddy Keane and just about every member of Lahinch won’t need reminding of the massive challenge awaiting all concerned.

JG: “Simon (Alliss) looked around the area, envisaging in his head where this has to go and that has to go and so much has to go in so many places.

Padraig McInerney, chairman of the South of Ireland Championship; 2017 captain Padraig Slattery, Paddy Keane, Paul and Simon and myself, we did the entire 18 holes, we did the Castle Course, all the infrastructure, we looked at everything.

“I think it is fair to say that changes envisaged for the golf course are absolutely minimal. In all likelihood, it will be a par 70 as the second and fourth in the modern game are too short for par fives.”

Our chat took place a few hours after the completion of the first qualifying round of the South of Ireland which was favoured by ideal playing conditions. As if to back up John Gleeson’s point, his nephew Alex Gleeson reached the second green with a drive and nine iron and another young big hitter, Mark Power, was on the fourth, the famous “Klondyke”, with a drive and wedge.

JG: “Other than the change of par, that will be it. We have a couple of new tees on 17 and 18… a spectacular tee on 17 to the back left of the 16th green adding about 30 yards, it’s just a beautiful hole from there with a stunning view.

“So the changes will be minimal and the golf course will stand on its own two feet with the provision that it will be a par 70 playing to its maximum distance of 7,050 yards. Weather-wise we’d like a bit of wind because seaside courses without wind are a bit defenceless. Paul doesn’t envisage anybody shooting 60 or anything like that and would like the winning score to be 15-under with a par of 70. That’s if conditions were favourable but of course how the European Tour set up the course really dictates.”

CM: Another rumour? Because of the proximity of the Lahinch-Liscannor road to the final hole and the limited space in that area to accommodate grandstands and so on, the second will become the 18th for the purposes of the Irish Open.

JG: “The numbering of the holes will also be decided by the European Tour. Paul would like the integrity of the golf course to be maintained and that would happen by leaving it as it is. His thinking along those lines is because so many people have played this golf course, most golfers in Ireland will have played Lahinch at some stage, so many overseas visitors have played it and if you suddenly take the first hole as the third and the finish as the second, it makes a bit of a nonsense of it.

The 18th is a fine finishing hole even if it’s not the strongest par five. There is the exception of the bombers like Rory and John Rahm who fly it so far but we’d much prefer to see people coming in with a three or four iron rather than a seven or eight — and you have the out of bounds to consider all the time.

“With the tee moved back, the bunkers on the right come more into play. And if you miss the green on the right and it’s running hard and fast, you have an incredibly difficult up and down.

“Obviously, there will be a grandstand at the back. There’s plenty of room there and you can take half of the first tee which is much too big for a stand at the side. In all likelihood, you will have a grandstand for the corporate hospitality across the road in the short game academy car park. The press tent will be on the first, second, third holes on the Castle Course right beside the practice ground so you’ll have access to all the players. Clearly we haven’t got the space to build a sponsors’ marquee the size of what they had at Ballyliffin but every venue is different and you chop and change.”

CM: The rumour mill has gone seriously into overdrive where traffic management is concerned largely because of the bottleneck that nearby Ennistymon so often becomes.

JG: “Probably the biggest challenge we see is having a satisfactory park and ride system. Satisfactory means that it is within reasonable proximity of the golf course. There’s a lot of work going on to identify suitable sites around Liscannor, Milltown Malbay and Ennistymon. We estimate that 10% of the traffic would come from the Liscannor side, maybe 20% from Milltown Malbay and the balance through Ennistymon. The Gardaí are confident that they will have an effective one-way system operating from six in the morning until eight in the evening.

CM: But the tournament takes place in the height of the holiday season when many thousands head for the Cliffs of Moher. The majority go through Lahinch, directly past the golf course and on through Liscannor, so how can they be accommodated on the week of the Irish Open?

JG: “In all likelihood, the Liscannor Road will not be open to through traffic from the turn-off at the Sancta Maria Hotel at the beginning of the golf course down to the River Inagh at the other end. This is under very serious consideration. Again, I can only emphasise once again how positive are the Gardaí that they will be able to make the traffic flow.

“We anticipate we will get very big crowds here. There may be restrictions on numbers and consultation with the Tour and the Gardaí as to how many people we can take. But we have a lot of space out there. There are some great natural vantage points around many greens while we have challenges around the Klondyke (fourth) and Dell (fifth). Look at the 10th, 11th, 14th, 15th, superb natural areas, and the 16th, what a beautiful golf hole.

So we’re right on top of it. We believe in getting things done and decisions made quickly and early.

“Simon Alliss is coming in August with Paul McGinley and others to lay down further ideas on the tented village with the Castle Course being the main option. In October, Miguel Viador from the Tour will come and lay out the course.

“Paul believes that similarities in width of fairways, speed of greens, length of rough, sand in bunkering to the British Open at Royal Portrush would be beneficial and help to attract top players.”

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