Thursday morning brought the devastating news that Paul McGinley and Irish golf fans had been fearing. Rory McIlroy, by far the biggest name in Irish golf and one of the biggest draws in world golf, would not be teeing it up at Lahinch this July.
Having taken the floundering event under his wing in 2015, McIlroy’s influence and support orchestrated the revival of the Irish Open to the extent that the European Tour made it one of the elite Rolex Series stops in 2017. That year, Jon Rahm’s victory at Portstewart earned him more than triple the prize-money that Mikko Ilonen received for topping the leaderboard at Fota Island in 2014.
However, in spite of increased purses, the Rolex series has failed to have the impact the European Tour hoped, and last year’s event at Ballyliffin featured the weakest field (by OWGR rankings) of any Irish Open since McIlroy took the reins. The absence of Ireland’s [current] top ranked player, makes it likely that this year’s staging will feature a field that’s weaker again.
Whilst there can be little doubting the part played by McIlroy in securing the Irish Open’s status as one of the marquee events on the European Tour, does he still owe anything to the event or the people of Ireland? Probably not. But does that mean that we can’t be disappointed by his choice to skip the event? Probably not either.
Once the dominant player in the game and the perceived heir to Tiger Woods’ throne, the Holywood man has not produced his best form on golf’s biggest stages for quite some time. A desire to return to the pinnacle of the sport was reported to be the main reason behind McIlroy’s decision not to re-join the European Tour, with a preference to tee it up the week before a major the main reason that the Scottish Open is preferred over the Irish.
But is there more to this? Is it possible that McIlroy has fallen out with the European Tour, with the Irish Open suffering collateral damage as a result?
Back in early 2018, McIlroy met with Keith Pelley – the CEO of the European Tour – with a view to swapping the Irish and Scottish Opens for 2019, with the Open Championship being held on the shores for the first time since 1951. For one reason or another, McIlroy’s pleas came to no fruition and the Irish and Scottish Opens held their respective calendar slots.
Fast forward several months, and McIlroy hints that he is considering giving up his European Tour card for 2019, later describing the European Tour as a stepping stone to the PGA Tour. With bigger prize-money and stronger fields, he is right of course, but as ever with Rory, the question was, “did it need to be said?”
Between his initial hint that he may forego European Tour membership and the controversial “stepping stone” press conference, Pelley flew to Northern Ireland to meet the four-time major winner in an attempt to persuade McIlroy to re-join the tour. A meeting that seemingly didn’t go well for the man tasked with building the status of the PGA tour’s poor cousin.
McIlroy’s European Tour membership status is unlikely to cost many Irish golf fans a night’s sleep, but his absence from the national open is a different story. With its proximity to the Open Championship, the Scottish Open is always going to attract a quality field, but it’s events like the Irish Open that will determine the success or failure of the European Tour’s Rolex sponsored initiative.
And by boycotting – a harsh term, admittedly – his home open, McIlroy is sending a clear statement to the European Tour and to the sponsors behind it.
Of course, this could all be dismissed as nonsense given Rory’s admission that his best results in majors have come when teeing it up the week before – a formula that he wished to revisit this year, deeming the Scottish Open a must and the Irish Open surplus to requirements.
However, a quick glance at his schedule reveals that McIlroy will not compete the week before the Masters, having committed to the WGC match-play the week previous. He has hinted that he may play the British Masters the week before the US PGA, which would put the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow a fortnight before the PGA in doubt. And for the season’s penultimate major, the skip a week, play a week, play a major formula would see him miss Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament, and play the Canadian Open in Hamilton, Ontario, before heading to Pebble Beach.
Maybe Rory re-joins the European Tour in May and I be proved guilty of miscalculating two plus two, or maybe he doesn’t and forfeits (as the rules currently stand) his prospects of future Ryder Cup captaincy.
Either way, the Irish Open suffers this year.
I’m disappointed by that.