COUNTY MEATH, IRELAND | As U.S. fans streamed into Killeen Castle for the Solheim Cup, they found themselves looking at surprisingly familiar golfing terrain. Yet, they could hardly have expected different, given that the course was designed by Jack Nicklaus on prime, County Meath pastureland. In fact, the Bear went so far as to compare the finishing par 4 with the left-to-right sweep of Muirfield Village, home of his Memorial Tournament.
Two American women supporters I met found the difference they were seeking in the magnificent medieval stone structures of Killeen Castle, on site, and Trim Castle, close by Knightsbrook GC where they attended the Junior Solheim Cup earlier in the week. Killeen Castle became all the more beguiling when they were informed that Deborah Kerr had been there in 1966 during filming of the movie “Casino Royale.”
They would also have been entitled to a certain bemusement at tourism banners around the venue proclaiming that Ireland possessed more than a third of the world’s links terrain. The figure, incidentally, seriously gilds the lily – from an estimated 150 prominent links courses worldwide, Ireland can boast no more than about 38.
But no matter. The most significant aspect of the weekend was that it marked the last occasion for the foreseeable future when a major international golfing event will be held in such an environment. The economic downturn at home and abroad will see to that.
It is widely accepted that the majority of American golfing tourists come to Ireland to savour the wonderful difference of links terrain. Against that background, it would seem entirely logical for major events, aimed at promoting the country, to be staged on such courses. Indeed much misinformed comment to this effect was made when the Ryder Cup was fixed for The K Club in 2006. Why couldn’t it have gone to a “natural” Irish home like Portmarnock or Royal Dublin? In that particular context, the simple reason had to do with the consequent embarrassment to the government of supporting an event at men-only clubs.
In 2000, by way of marking the millennium, title sponsor Murphy’s Brewery thought it appropriate to stage the Irish Open on the classic links terrain of Ballybunion. Following serious concern among the club’s members as to possible damage by spectators to the precious dune-structure, it was decided to put strict limits on the attendance each day. With a consequent loss of more than €500,000 in revenues.
Looking back over major international golf events staged in Ireland, it is interesting to note that most were on links terrain before the arrival of proprietary, country-club-style developments to the Emerald Isle, pioneered by the launch of The K Club and Mount Juliet in July 1991. These events included the British Amateur Championship (Portmarnock, 1949), British Open (Royal Portrush, 1951), Canada Cup/World Cup (Portmarnock, 1960), Alcan Tournament (Portmarnock, 1970), Curtis Cup (Royal Co Down, 1968) and Walker Cup (Portmarnock, 1991 and Royal Co Down, 2007).
It is still possible to find suitable links courses for such events as the Walker Cup and Curtis Cup, given that with no great pressure to generate revenue, attendances can be limited. For instance, ceilings of 10,000 were imposed for the Walker Cup at Portmarnock and Royal Co Down. In the case of the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup, however, revenue has become a huge consideration. I can recall Portmarnock’s honorary secretary being stunned when the European Tour asked for what amounted to hello-money of €650,000 before the venue would be even considered as a candidate for the 2006 Ryder Cup.
Propriety clubs, on the other hand, were more than willing to pay handsomely for the invaluable publicity which could accrue from these undertakings. All of which led to a decidedly curious situation for this particular Solheim Cup which originally had three main sponsors – Failte Ireland, Allied Irish Bank (AIB) and the host club.
Ireland was flying high, revelling in the so-called Celtic Tiger, when the Solheim Cup deal was completed in the fall of 2006. A year later, in the immediate aftermath of the Solheim Cup at Halmstad, Sweden, AIB agreed on a sponsorship deal reported to be worth €3 million and incorporating support of a revived Irish Ladies Open. Twelve months further on, the economy collapsed with the bank effectively becoming state controlled.
While the sponsorship commitment was duly honoured, it was not considered appropriate for the bank to advertise their involvement, given that the Irish taxpayer was picking up the tab. So, they became silent partners, supporting the venture from behind the scenes while receiving no publicity. The host venue also found themselves in difficulties through the collapse of the real-estate market on which the venue’s viability was based. They, too, remained true to the cause, though they were unable to deliver the on-site hotel which was envisaged when the deal for the tournament was signed.
So, it could be said that the tournament worked, very much against the odds. In the process, Ireland was seen to do its bit for world golf. It is a price, however, that the country is unlikely to be paying again, for probably another generation.