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Royal County Down to Host 2015 Irish Open


The Irish Open will be returning to one of the world's top courses, Royal County Down, in 2015. The venue in Northern Ireland, No. 4 in the world in some rankings, will host the European Tour event for the first time since 1939.

The Irish Open was last held in Northern Ireland in 2012, at Royal Portrush, and was played before record crowds. The tournament will be held this year at Fota Island near Cork. Fota Island will hold the event in 2016 followed by Lough Erne Resort, also in Northern Ireland, the next year.

European Tour chief George O'Grady gave credit to Rory McIlroy for seeing that the tournament returns to his homeland. "It was Rory McIlroy's inspired suggestion to me during the 2013 BMW Masters in China that proved to be the catalyst for today's announcement, and we are confident that our players will relish the chance to compete for the Irish Open title at this iconic links course next year," O'Grady said at the announcement on Thursday.

McIlroy, the 2012 U.S. Open champion, said of Royal County Down's selection: "We all thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing an Irish Open in Northern Ireland two years ago, so it is fantastic news that we will have another chance in 2015 and again in 2017.

"Royal County Down is another great links course, which I know particularly well, and it is one which I am very proud of as a Northern Irishman, so I'm delighted to have the opportunity to play an Irish Open there. I'm sure the fans will come out and support us again and make it another week to remember."

Here's what also was said during the announcement. On hand were O'Grady, various national and club dignitaries and, via a teleconference, McIlroy, who's in Texas this week for the Shell Houston Open.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much for your attendance with us this afternoon. My name is Scott Crockett, Communications Director of the European Tour, and it's my great pleasure to welcome you all here for a very special announcement. In every season on the European Tour, there are some week which is capture the excitement of this great game of ours, tournament which is set the pulses racing.

The Irish Open is one of those weeks. It's a tournament with a rich history and a quick glance at the record books shows a list of champions straight from the Who's Who of golf itself. However, the Irish Open also has a very exciting future, and it's for that precise reason that we are gathered here today. The people who have helped shape that future are to my right. You will meet them officially in a moment. But before we do, let's remind ourselves of the truly special atmosphere an Irish Open in Northern Ireland can produce with a look back to 2012 and that memorable week at Royal Portrush. (Video Played).

Special memories there I think you'll agree. Now turning back to today's announcement let me introduce our top table to you. European Tour enjoys a special relationship with the Northern Ireland Executive and therefore, delighted to welcome First Minister, the right honorable Peter Robinson. An enterprise trade investment minister Arlene Foster. Seated between them is Chief Executive of the European Tour, Mr. George O'Grady while on minister Foster's right is Dr. Peter Brown who is the captain of Royal County Down Golf Club. Completing our top table lineup, to the left of First Minister rob son is Alan Clarke, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and on Alan's left is John O'Neil, sales and marketing director of Lough Erne Resort. Without further ado I'm delighted to hand the floor to European Tour Chief Executive, George O'Grady to make today's announcement.

GEORGE O'GRADY: Thank you, Scott. First Minister, Minister Foster, Club Captain Alan, and John, and other distinguished guests today, welcome, firstly, here to Newcastle, Royal County Down Golf Club. It is an enormous pleasure for The European Tour to come back here. We've had the Senior Open Championship and I personally was here at the Walker Cup announcement in 2007, and in fact, I have got a vested interest now, because I am also a member of Sunningdale Golf Club. By checking the board behind, I see when the Irish Open was last here in 1939, our touring professional, Arthur Lees, won the tournament, so I think that probably means I think a Sunningdale player might win this time (laughter).

Coming back here to the north on a four year commitment which enables us to announce Royal County Down 2015, 28th to 31st of May, and then going to Lough Erne in 2017, and plus the commitment of the Northern Ireland Executive to help when the tournament goes to the south of Ireland, as well. It's in the words of the leaders of both the north and south of Ireland, golf showcases all of Ireland. To bring tourists and golfers to play the wonderful courses throughout Ireland. Quite frankly, Royal County Down, No. 4 in the world by Golf Digest, and I think we are going to see that. It's not the nicest day today to see just how lovely this course is, but we have persuaded Jack Nicklaus to play here in the second of the Senior Opens and he lavished heaps of praise when he played here. Took him some time to get used to some of the blind holes and blind drives, but it grew on him and he thought there was just nowhere more beautiful to play the game.

The vision we have here with Alan, to make the thing actually happen, pulled together our own team today, looking back to Portrush, we are going to be leading up to this, tickets go on sale straightaway. We sold out at Portrush and we are confident it is going to go quite well again. Rory, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell. Pádraig Harrington and all of the other great players from the north are all on side for this announcement, and quite frankly this is a great day for the European Tour.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, George. My great pleasure to hand the floor to the First Minister, the Right Honourable, Peter Robinson.

RT. HONOURABLE FIRST MINISTER ROBINSON: Thank you very much indeed. First welcome all of our friends from the European Tour, not just in Portrush but we have you bumped into each other in Hong Kong, as well at the Hong Kong Golf Club. It's an enormous pleasure for me to be here. The proposition of not just looking at the possibility of having the European Tour here in Royal County Down but to follow it up two years later with the European Tour coming back, I think shows the importance that golf is not just to the Northern Ireland Executive but I think clearly the public of Northern Ireland who turned out in such enormous numbers. George, I think I'm right in saying that it was probably the best attended event on the European Tour, and that's the love that the people of Northern Ireland have for golf; it has to be said, by having some of the best golfers in the world.

It's great for Royal County Down and great for Northern Ireland and it's great for the fans, people like myself, who enjoy watching golf throughout the year. And it will be great, as well, for Lough Erne Resort, as well. So a fantastic feast of golf ahead for us, able to rekindle the memories that you saw on the video, which just fell short of the script that we had written in the executive by only one element, and that is we are wanting that trophy to be held high by someone from Northern Ireland preferably. So it will be an opportunity for us over those two events to try and get a hold of that trophy.

And it has to be said for Royal County Down, you have got a few months now to sort out the weather. It's remarkable that when we have a royal visit to Northern Ireland, there'slobbying that has to go down to County Fermanagh. When we have the G8, there's lobbying that has to go down to County Fermanagh. When the European Tour, it has to go down to County Fermanagh. And I can't imagine who it is is doing the lobby for all of these events (laughter), but it is great to see, because that is a tremendous course, as well. I have not played the Lough Erne course. I have played this course once, and the fact that I have played it once could perhaps give you some indication of how challenging I found it. I didn't threaten any of the course record, put it that way, but the people that will be coming, I think will threaten the course record and it will be a great spectacle for those of us who love golf.

So thanks very much to the European Tour for coming here. We are glad that we have been able to reach agreements with you in terms of the next four years, and we had a conversation about the events of the European Tour when we met in Washington just a number of weeks ago, and he is as enthusiastic about golf as I am, so you can see where the impetus comes to have these great events. The one thing we area at the point being to do and Arlene, in particular, is taking the lead for us, we want to have a major sporting event every year in Northern Ireland, at least one major sporting event. And of course, this year we'll have the Giro d'Italia, the Grande Partenza in Northern Ireland, a fantastic event; the kind of thing that I have - a political element, a kind of thing that we could not have contemplated in the decades of the past.

It is a reward to the people of Northern Ireland for the new era that we are living in, and it is I hope the inspiration for people to keep going forward in the path that we are to make Northern Ireland a better place and to keep Northern Ireland moving forward, thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much First Minister. Now to add their own comments to the day, Minister Arlene Foster.

MINISTER FOSTER: Thank you very much and I'm obviously delighted to be here in Royal County Down there are two very happy ladies here today, myself and Margaret Ritchie, because I know that Margaret is delighted that the European Tour decided to hold the Irish Open here in Royal County Down and we are very much looking forward to it. Because of course The Irish Open at Portrush was such a tremendous success, George, and you know that, because of your team working so closely with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and with the team in Northern Ireland, and we have seen great partnership working across the Northern Ireland executive portal. We had six months to bring it all together when we announced the Irish Open in Royal Portrush, and it was a challenge.

It's a little while longer for Royal County Down and I'm sure Peter is very pleased about that but we do look forward to the marvelous event that is the Irish Open coming back to Northern Ireland again and coming back to Royal County Down. We know that it is a very special place for a lot of our top golfers right across the world and they have all expressed a desire to come to Royal County Down. So we are happy to fulfill that desire and to welcome them here to Newcastle and to the beauty of the Mournes. I am, of course, absolutely delighted that we are going to Lough Erne Resort in County Fermanagh in 2017. We will work very hard to make it a fabulous success, as well, of course, and I'm delighted to see George and John here and I'm sure Fergal is around somewhere, as well, from the Lough Erne Golf Resort.

I think when you look at that video clip from Royal Portrush and you see the images and you see Northern Ireland made for golf, it does bring goose bumps to me when I say that because it was a tremendous occasion. It really set our NI 2012, our timeline place in context, and gave a specific pride that I very much want to engender with people in Northern Ireland, and I think we will do the same here in Newcastle and County Down next year and again in 2017. So George, thank you, for putting your trust in the Northern Ireland executive. I know Peter is great fan of golf and I'm delighted that he could be here with us today to make this announcement, so thank you, and all of the team from the European Tour for putting your trust in us, thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Now to speak on behalf of our hosts today, captain of Royal County Down, Dr. Peter Brown.

DR. PETER BROWN: Ladies and gentlemen, you are all very welcome to Royal County Down. We are delighted to have been asked to host The Irish Open in 2015. We have a fantastic links course here. It's consistently ranked high up in the world rankings. Last year it was ranked fourth in the world behind Augusta, Pine Valley and Cypress Point, so we are pretty living in pretty hot company. We are fortunate that we have about 10,000 visitors every year come and play in this fantastic links and certainly having the Irish Open here can only improve the profile of golf in Northern Ireland and golf throughout the world. I think having the success of Rory, Darren and Graeme, it's been great for everybody in north and south of Ireland and I think it will be great to have them and hopefully other top players in the world coming to play on this fantastic links.

It will also be great for the local economy here in Newcastle and the wider Mourne district, and I think with the European Tour and the Northern Ireland Executive, hopefully we can make this tournament a great success, so you are all very welcome.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Peter. On behalf of the Lough Erne Resort, sales and marketing director, Mr. John O'Neil.

JOHN O'NEIL: First Minister Robinson, Minister Foster, we at the Lough Erne Resort are honored and privileged to be announced as the host venue for the 2017 Irish Open. It's a fantastic recognition and a tremendous honor for our resort and indeed the championship golf course there. We would like to extend our thanks to Minister Foster, to Northern Ireland Tourist Board, to Northern Ireland Executive, and of course the European Tour for affording us the opportunity in bringing The Irish Open to Lough Erne. We are planning lots of hard work over the next few years to ensure the resort is ready, ready to host the 2017 Irish Open and we look forward to following in the footsteps of Royal Portrush and Royal County Down in hosting an Irish Open that will exceed expectations and make Northern Ireland proud. Finally I'd like to just remind the First Minister that when we hosted the G8, the sun shone for three days. When we hosted the Royal Visit this week, the sun shone, and I've assured Minister Foster the sun will shine for four days in 2017. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, John. Before we move to some questions from the floor, as you'll see from the press release, today's announcement has received widespread backing from many of the top players in the game. However, one man in particular is very keen to be part of today's celebrations. Let's hear what he has to say for himself, shall we.

RORY McILROY: Hi, guys, Rory McIlroy here, at the Shell Houston Open in Texas. Sorry I couldn't be with you today for the big announcement, but great news that the Irish Open is going to be played at Royal County Down in 2015, a golf doors that I have really respond memories of, I played the Walker Cup there in 2007, and I grew up not too far away. So great to see the Irish Open come back to Northern Ireland and a great links course. And also for the Irish Open to be coming back north in 2017 being played at the Lough Erne Golf Resort. Obviously I was a touring professional there for a number of years, and I think that it will present a really good test for the guys whenever the Irish Open is played there. So a great announcement, great for Irish golf as a whole and look forward to teeing up at both venues.

Q. Can you comment on the date change for the Irish Open, bringing it forward next year, and just as a follow up, what size of crowd do you expect to get into this venue?

GEORGE O'GRADY: Well, the date had to move in 2015, anyway, because there's one less week between the U.S. Open and the Open Championship; so something had to go. And as this was a date that worked very well with certain leading Irish players who would put it in their schedule, because it's backing on to the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, we've got the very best chance of getting the strongest possible field and certainly one that looks after the home grown talent. As far as numbers, Antonia Beggs is our Championship Director at Royal Portrush, when it was a sellout crowd. We think we could have taken more in the end at Portrush, but it was the first time. We are not quite there on exactly the numbers, but I think over the next few planning weeks we'll be certainly in the region of 20,000 I would have thought per day.

Q. Could you expand on what it has taken between yourself and Mr. Kelly to achieve this level of cooperation and what we are looking to here in today's announcements?

RT. HONOURABLE FIRST MINISTER ROBINSON: I think the relationship between Northern Ireland and the south is probably at a higher level and better level than it has ever been in the history of both states. And the relationship between Northern Ireland Executive and the government in the Republic is a very strong relationship built up because we meet very regularly, and not just in terms of the structured meetings that we have on North, South Ministerial Council and British Aisle Ministerial Council. But there would be regular contact with our ministers if there's an issue of cooperation, whether it's in sport or anything else; the phone will be picked up or a meeting will be arranged, and we do have that very fruitful relationship that is working well for both of us.

In terms of golf, Edna fancies himself a bit of a golfer (laughter) my golfing days are all behind me. The joints are too sore for that. At least that's my excuse so's I don't have to take up his challenge. But we do both enjoy golf, and it's in the genes of people in the islands as a whole. You can see the level of interest that there is amongst the general public, the number of courses there are and indeed the level of expertise there is not just in Northern Ireland but in the south in terms of the top players. So it's common ground, and at times in politics, it's always good to have something in common that we can talk about and agree on.

Q. Can you tell us how much investment the executive is making in financial terms to bring both these tournaments here?

MINISTER FOSTER: I think it's fair to say that the commitment we made in relation to Royal Portrush was paid time and time again back to us, and we believe that that's going to be the case in respect to Royal County Down and Lough Erne, as well. It's tremendously important for us to value the Irish Open for what it is; a tremendous event which brought to us European, dare I say, global exposure in the respect of Irish Open coming back to Northern Ireland; and indeed the support that we received from our home grown players.

And I do want to pay tribute to Jamie Donaldson who won the Irish Open in Royal Portrush, he was a tremendously generous champion. I was very pleased for him; obviously I would be more pleased if it was one of our own but I thought Jamie was a tremendous champion, and we will again - I think that was his first big European Tour win and because of that, he will always remember Royal Portrush and we hope that we will inspire others to do the same at Royal County Down and Lough Erne.

It's commercially confident; we will not be talking about it; it's a bit vulgar, but we will I have no doubt reap the benefits of our investment to the European Tour. They have become not only partners but very good friends of the ministerial team and the Northern Ireland Executive.

Q. Just on the date, George, will it revert to the late June date then for the years afterwards in 2016, 2017, or are you in May?

GEORGE O'GRADY: It's just too early to say. We have got the Olympic Games in 2016 which is playing reasonable havoc with some of our schedules, anyway. By then, we will go back to the four weeks between the U.S. Open and the Open after the Olympic Games. This is a constantly evolving situation. The Irish Open is a favorite part in the heart of the European Tour because of it's longevity and the great players who play here so we work together with them on a date that suits their schedules and if it works this year, which is a week directly after the U.S. Open which is quite a tough week, but it suits one or two of the key players, and we'll just take it year by year. 2016 will be a very challenging year to get the right date, and so we have got to get through that first and then 2017 will come at the date at whoever happens to be the leading players of the day at that time.

Q. Do you have any idea where you'd like to go in 2016?

GEORGE O'GRADY: We have a couple ideas. We are very enthusiastic on Fota Island. We are getting great support down there. The new owners are quite driven to make it really good. The feedback in Cork is very strong. They would be the running favorite, I would say, but there is now a lot of interest in other clubs, as well, and again, it's a work in progress.

Q. Are you happy with the multi sponsorship platform that you have or are you still pursuing a tight the sponsor and do you have any idea what the prize fund is for this year?

GEORGE O'GRADY: The pride fund will be two million Euros and will certainly not be less than that when we come to Royal County Down in 2015. If we get the same support from some of the companies up here in the north as we got last time, we'll look very strongly at increasing for 2015. But that again, we have got to tie that down. We are in a changing world slightly. Donald Trump has bought Doonbeg and we are in quite close contract with him and he has a habit of delivering very good golf courses. It's a good golf course anyway, Doonbeg but with the investment he's putting in, we'll see how that goes. Already had a chat with him but it's probably too early to commit an Irish Open to Doonbeg, yet. But by 2016, who knows.

But right now, Fota Island is looking in the business. We like the multi sponsorship approach, we are looking at charity angles, as well. We have had many different ideas. We work together with the governments of both sides, the Northern Ireland Executive up here and with Edna, as well, who we spent a half a day with him in Dublin recently, and his team, and he wants the Irish Open to be as strong as it can because he still believes it's a wonderful advertisement, if you like, for Ireland, certainly golf in Ireland but Ireland as a country, as well. He says in a golfing sense, people come to Ireland to play golf whether it's the north or south, and ideally you play everywhere and are welcomed everywhere.

I think hearing Minister Foster speak about the impact of Portrush after we left, a lot of the businesses there, certainly Royal Portrush itself, straight after the tournament, it was really hard to get a visitor's green fee time from then to the end of the year. They were virtually booked out every time and that impact there and at other clubs in the region, I think you'll see the same impact in the area around here to all the local businesses and the people coming in.

I think if we can leave everywhere we go and we inspire people to play; I think if you look back at the Walker Cup when it was here, of those players, 11 have won tournaments on the PGA Tour or European Tour and two have gone on to win major championships, Rory of course and Webb Simpson. So we inspire and we have an impact on the environment and we showcase the area and I think we have done a reasonable job.

Q. There were quite reduced crowds for the Walker Cup in 2007. Can you explain why you could have 20,000 next year and only 10 or 12 back in 2007?

DR. BROWN: Well, I'm actually not an expert in crowds and grandstands and things, so I would leave that up to the European Tour and the capable hands of Antonia. I think that's still very much in the planning stage.

GEORGE O'GRADY: To be honest, I think in the Walker Cup, they did allow the spectators to walk the fairways, I think, and that's about the number you can take if you're doing that. These fairways will be roped off in the traditional manner. We have taken a look already. Wonderful vantage points around this golf course, as well. So if you are going to marshal the crowds properly, 20,000 should be no problem, I would have thought, and our team think that already.

Q. As a follow up, just on the golf course, you must be pleased there will be no changes whatsoever to the course between now and then, no new tees?

DR. BROWN: Well, it stood the test of time up until now so there's no need to make any changes at all.

Q. Is there any discussion or temptation to maybe change or swap the nines around for any reason?

DR

. BROWN: No.

Q. Is there any ongoing plans for development of driving range development and for the players at the time of the tournament?

DR. BROWN: As with any big professional tournament, there has to be practice facilities and we have got ample room for that for the professionals to practice.

The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.