THE substantial shadow of the man who is not there will not damage the Irish Open.
That’s the firm view of host Paul McGinley but he admits that Rory McIlroy is a major loss from the field at Lahinch. “I’m still very disappointed. He’s one of the top players in the world, he’s Irish and he’s chosen this year to sit out the Irish Open, which is a huge disappointment for everyone; you’ve got to be honest and open about it. But, you know what, the Irish Open isn’t going to be defined by whether Rory McIlroy plays or not. The Irish Open has been in the schedule for a great number of years, with some great champions like Seve Ballesteros, Olazábal, Bernhard Langer; Rory’s won it himself. Players come and go, eras come and go but the Irish Open will always remain.”
McIlroy’s reasoning that playing Lahinch would damage his chances at the British Open doesn’t hold water, McGinley feels, but the field will still be very strong. “I don’t agree with it but, at the end of the day, it’s his calls and his decisions. This is the way the game is at the moment, the players make their own decisions. The Tour can’t control which players play which events; it all rests with the players and their agents. They decided to have a different approach because the Open is in Portrush this year and that means playing the week before and not playing the week of Lahinch, which is a disappointment for us. But we move on, all things considered, with the condensed schedule and the amount of choice the top players have at the moment, we’re going to have a very good field. There are a number of players who haven’t yet announced but have verbally confirmed.”
In Clare, nearly everyone is familiar with the problem at Blake’s Corner and as soon as the Irish Open was confirmed for Lahinch, there was chatter about how disastrous the traffic there would be.
While there may have been a lot of local concern, McGinley says it is nothing the European Tour isn’t very used to dealing with. “Believe me, we come across much bigger problems than what you’ve got in Lahinch throughout the year. I’m involved in the board of the European Tour and have been playing on it for nearly 30 years. The European Tour are very experienced in all kinds of different venues, whether it’s going through the traffic in some place like Shanghai or Beijing or going to somewhere rural like we are in Lahinch. They are very well versed in navigating their way around these kind of challenges.
“I certainly have got no problem. I believe there’s going to be a single-flow traffic plan in place. The gardaí and the local council couldn’t have been more engaging and open in making this run as smoothly as possible. They’ve very much had a can-do attitude and it’s great to have that support from people like the county council, like Lahinch Golf Club, like the gardaí. It’s just brilliant. They’re a dream to work with, they really are. The energy of the people is the thing that makes me most proud about this Irish Open; the energy of the local people and how they’ve embraced a big circus like the European Tour coming to town.”
The professional calendar is more condensed than usual this year, he feels, meaning that there is more competition to attract the top players.
Still, he feels Lahinch has enough to hold its own and it will be great for players preparing for the major coming up a fortnight later. “It’s a brilliant links golf course, one of the highest-rated links golf courses in the world, in a rural Irish setting. I’ve worked and been in touch with the R & A about how they are going to be setting up the Open Championship two weeks later up in Royal Portrush and to make sure we are aligned similar to that. Rough heights, green speeds, fairway winds, all those kind of things are going to be as close as possible to what they’re going to have in Portrush. As much as the Irish Open is going to stand on its own two feet, it’s also good prep for the guys coming over, to play a pure links golf course, getting ready for the Open two weeks later.”
Lahinch is a challenging course, with a greater range of challenges than the other top links courses, the former Ryder Cup captain believes. “The variety is the thing, the holes run in different directions. Some of the old links courses, like Troon or Royal Dublin, the first nine holes go out and the back nine holes come in, so you’re playing one of two winds. That’s not the case in Lahinch, where the golf course moves around. Also, the variety of holes; you have short par fours, long par fours, par fives, driveable par fours; there’s such a variety of things. It’s the architecture of it as well, the run-off around the greens, the fairway bunkers, the greenside bunkers, all of those things are pure links. It really is a naturally pure links golf course and that’s our strongest asset.
“Our competition is the Scottish Open the week after, which doesn’t have those. It’s a new golf course, only built 10 or 12 years ago and it’s not really in the same kind of terrain as Lahinch is. I think a lot of players will choose to come to Lahinch for that reason and think it’s a really good prep for the Open and great to play one of the pure links golf courses for a huge prize fund.”
McGinley first came to Lahinch as a young teenager, caddying for his father in the South of Ireland, a competition he would play in himself as he reached his early 20s. He has a fondness for the course and the area of North Clare it is in. “Everybody who is Irish loves Lahinch. Just look at the amount of overseas members you have down there too. Everyone who goes there falls in love with the place. It’s got character. It’s not just the golf course, it’s the whole town. It’s the people, it’s the sense of rawness, the sense of real rural Ireland that people get attracted to.”
The fact it is so close to the village is a huge advantage, he says, and will help create a brilliant atmosphere this summer. “It’s a little bit like St Andrew’s in that regard. The 18th hole in St Andrew’s isn’t far off the main street and it’s the same in Lahinch; we’re not far away from the very centre there. When it was announced it was going to be in Lahinch, the whole idea was to use the town, make the town very much a focal point of everything that was going on; it’s not just about the golf. The idea is to create a festival atmosphere, with live music going on, people having a few drinks in the streets, a bit of craic, the golf going on in the background, a bit of everything.”
Asked how often he has to be in contact with people on the ground in Lahinch, McGinley says, “I’m in touch daily with somebody. It’s been daily for quite a while. The people involved down there, Paddy Keane, Sam Slattery and John Gleeson in particular, they’re my three main points of contact and they’ve been fabulous. At least once every day we’re communicating with each other and have done for six months now. It’s a full-on thing, a big deal, bringing the Irish Open down to Lahinch.
“Going to a venue we haven’t been at before, everything has to be built and thought out from scratch; it’s not like we’re using a template of something that has worked in the past. It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort on so many different levels. Getting the field is just one of them, the whole infrastructure, getting the trucks and all the stuff in, where the stands are going to go, how many people we are going to let in, health and safety, how we’re going to bring the festival part of it into the town, communicating with the council and the gardaí; it’s a huge, huge project. That’s why it’s unlikely it’s going to be repeated,” he concludes.