More than a quarter-century has passed since my father and I, on a family holiday in the remote north-west of Ireland, passed through one more delightful fishing village and ended up, entirely unplanned, at the front entrance of a little-known golf club.
It was run-down looking, to say the least. ‘If you want to play, just put some money in that honesty box over there,’ said a kindly voice. And so, on returning the next day, we did.
As every travelling golfer knows, it’s one of the great pleasures of playing along the coast of the British Isles that you stumble on courses that don’t score highly in the ratings charts but clearly should. This course we played might not have been in the greatest condition but it was magnificent in every other regard.
Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm head a strong field for the Irish Open at Ballyliffin this week
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
‘I came here because I was right on the bubble in terms of keeping my Tour card and I wanted to gain a better position. It was not easy to skip Paris but I think I can say it was the right decision.’
Plenty of Yanks were getting it in the neck for not pitching up at the French Open played on the Ryder Cup course last week but what about Francesco Molinari? On the brink of clinching a place in Europe’s team, he turned up in Washington instead of Versailles to play in a ho-hum PGA Tour event. Any eyebrow-raising was rendered null as he became the first Italian to win on the PGA tour since Toney Penna in 1947, and he went from worrying about his playing privileges to earning a two-year exemption. Tiger Woods finished fourth in his last start before The Open.
A couple of years later, I wrote about it for the Financial Times, and was pleased to get a letter from the club by return saying the article had played a small part in their monetary drive to restore lustre to the links.
This week, I’m looking forward to going back for the first time. I suspect the honesty box is no longer there and quite a few other things have changed besides. There’s a splendid-looking clubhouse, for a start, and another majestic 18 holes. The course was Ballyliffin, and this week it will welcome Rory McIlroy as host for what is sure to be another fabulous Irish Open. Clearly, the club’s financial drive went well.
There could be no better event, of course, to show off the new Ballyliffin. Like the venue, the Irish Open was run-down and stumbling in the backwaters until Rory took a considerable interest.
In 2011, the first prize was a little over £200,000. This week, with a committed sponsor in Dubai Duty Free and part of the Rolex Series of prestigious events, the winner will receive almost £1million.
The Irish Open’s progress has been helped by moving to links courses, showing off not only those that are world-famous but others that are equally enjoyable to play. Royal Portrush, Royal County Down and Portstewart have already been visited, while next year it will be staged at another gem, Lahinch, in County Clare.
But first it’s the turn of Ballyliffin, in beautiful Donegal. From where they were all those years ago to hosting such a tournament, well, no wonder the bunting is reportedly hanging from every lamppost for miles around.
Open’s meritocracy stops mediocrity
There must be plenty the Royal and Ancient could learn from Wimbledon but thank God that at The Open they’ve never replicated the risible practice of doling out wildcards to mostly undeserving Brits (eight of the 12 home players competing at SW19, would you believe, are beneficiaries of this grotesque scheme that goes against every sporting instinct).
Open final qualifying will feature 72 players competing over 36 holes for place at Carnoustie
What a contrast to The Open final qualifying that will take place on Tuesday. There will be 72 players competing over 36 holes, with just three spots on offer for Carnoustie in a little over a fortnight. Yes, it’s hard, brutal even, but at the end of the day the Brits who come through that process to make it to the Angus links can look themselves in the mirror and say: ‘Truly, I earned it.’
Among those to keep an eye out for are Paul Lawrie’s son, Craig, and his nephew Sean. Since Paul himself will not be able to play over the course where he won the Claret Jug in 1999 owing to injury, it would be fitting if one of these young Scots made it through to keep the family name flying.
If you asked a room of 100 golfers what their nightmare scenario would be the day before a big event, you would probably get the same answer. Losing your clubs.
Sympathy, then, goes to Graeme McDowell whose irons went AWOL following a flight from Paris to Manchester ahead of an Open qualifying event at St Annes Links today. Last night they were still missing and the Northern Irishman tweeted that he would cut his losses and try to qualify for Carnoustie via the Irish Open.