Graeme McDowell watches his tee shot on the fourth hole in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch Golf Club on Thursday
Even as a committed golf besotted fan, I do not mind admitting that since Lahinch was announced as the venue for the Irish Open, I did not see success as a certainty. I was inclined to believe that The European Tour, the main sponsor Dubai Duty Free, Clare County Council and Lahinch Golf Club were all taking a risk and staking their reputations on a potential logistical nightmare.
I did not allow for the determined community spirit and organisational ability of the Club, the County Council, the Garda Siochana and European Tour to stage-manage such a faultless, well-attended event. No wonder Paul McGinley said at the conclusion: “I would like to thank all of the fans and volunteers who contributed to such an unforgettable occasion. There was high drama and plenty of brilliant golf played throughout the four days on a superbly prepared golf course. "
Prior to the event, whenever I was asked how 20,000 spectators per day might manage to wriggle their way past Ennistymon's infamous Blake's Corner? I kicked to touch and said (without much conviction): It all depends on the weather. If I had known in advance that the sunshine would arrive with perfect timing for the popular Celebrity Pro Am on Wednesday and a total of 11,083 fans would turn out to watch pop star Niall Horan, Irish rugby legends Paul O’Connell and Keith Wood, hurlers Cian Lynch, Joe Canning and Shane O'Donnell as well as former Champion jockey AP McCoy among many other celebrities, I'd have been even more worried.
Saturday was a bit dreary and damp but it was warm and calm. The players took advantage by 'savaging' par on a relatively defenceless course, to the extent that an English golfer, Robert Rock, came within inches of shooting an unimaginable 59 in round 3. On Thursday, 16,228 spectators descended on the sun-drenched links; Friday’s second round saw crowds of 18,841. On Saturday, full capacity was reached when 20,097 came through the gates and on Sunday the sold out signs went up once more as 20,477 squeezed through the turnsiles.
No wonder Pat Dowling, County Clare's Chief Executive Officer, was pleased to point out that his organisation was "proud to have the opportunity to help showcase his County at its very best to a potential international television audience of 50- million people. County Clare has so much to offer, especially when the sun shines. The TV pictures sent around the world were extraordinary. Anybody who saw them and who hasn't been to the Banner County previously will wish they could pay Clare a visit asap".
Running a golf tournament as big as the Irish Open takes a lot of planning and requires hundreds of volunteer workers to deliver the end product. The logistics and military style organisation of the entire event was an enormous task carried out to perfection by Simon Alliss (European Tour), Lahinch Club Manager, Paddy Keane, Chairperson Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Committee, John Gleeson and Head Marshall, Martin O'Sullivan (Sully to his friends) and his Army of 900 (!) enthusiastic volunteers operating both behind the scenes and in the thick of the action. For example, I 'accidentally' stumbled upon what seemed to me to be the key person behind the scenes, Bob Baird from Bath in England. A former Fireman, Bob was busily coordinating the radio communication system between the Head Marshall and his troops manning each hole when, out of curiosity, I poked my head through the door of a converted container in the middle of the adjacent GAA field and asked him about his role? Virtually the conductor of a 900-piece Orchestra, Bob sent, received and sorted radio messages to and from the hundreds of volunteers who were doing the scoring, directing and controlling the moving hordes of spectators, supervising the grandstands and various other essential chores. Why he is content to do his responsible and stressful task without remuneration for 12 years is beyond me. Especially, when he told me: "I don't play golf and I never get to see any of the action. I was at Valderrama last week and I'll be in Scotland next week. Doing this job as a volunteer keeps me busy in my retirement years. I am not paid and I cover all of my own travelling and subsistence expenses, which I suppose may seem odd since my working day starts at 5.45am and rarely ends before 7.15pm."
In the container next door, Bill Fraser was busy supervising the Grandstands and Leader Boards personnel dotted around the golf course from a static position that meant he saw 'very little' of the golf action while Jenny Cagney and Angela Counihan had the monumental task of "sorting, bagging and distributing the smart, uniforms (in all shapes and sizes) to each one of the 900 volunteers individually.
Tim and Hillary Duggan from Limerick GC said they were "hugely impressed with Lahinch and all that has been done on the golf course and around the village. It's all brilliant and the weather is the star of the show!" They chorused. I also met, Limerick Lawn Tennis stalwarts, Mike and Breda Murphy, who were equally enthralled by Lahinch's 'transformation'. They were especially pleased with the efficiency of the free, shuttle bus/park and ride arrangements.
Seamus McEnery (Ennis GC) is a keen a student of the game who spent most of his time at the practice area videoing swings. He noticed how strong, young, fit and 'gym-toned' all of the players were. None more so than the Malaysian, Galvin Green, who, Seamus said, "had the body language and intensity of an Oriental Assassin. When his club made contact with the ball it took off like a tracer bullet. Green may be 230th in the World Rankings but watch out for him at Portrush." Seamus's only disappointment was there wasn't more than one top-20 player in the field. "If Robert Rock could 'almost' shoot 59, what would Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson or Brooks Koepka shoot?
Lahinch member, Mike Kemmy of Kemmy Stonecraft Gifts, Awards & Trophies was delighted to be a scorer and being allowed to walk inside the ropes from where he was able to observe the play up close and exchange a few words with the pros and their caddies. "A learning experience," was how he described it. Former University of Limerick Professor of Mathematics, Mick Wallace and former Limerick FC goalkeeper, Mick O'Donnell, were 'worn out' but enthusiastic about their marshalling role at the 13th hole. "The green should have been driveable, which would have complicated matters but nobody we saw managed to do it until Sunday when the tee was moved forward".
Ber Murphy (Castletroy GC) is an experienced tournament volunteer who was positioned at the beautiful sixth hole overlooking the beach. "I love watching golf and enjoy being involved in any capacity. It was a long, busy day but very interesting. The players were really polite and nice. The Chinese player, Haotong Li, gave us a laugh when he pretended to be jealous because one of his pro-am companions, the newly crowned British Amateur Champion from Mallow, James Sugrue, was hogging all of the attention.
Fresh from their brilliant win in the Father & Son competition at Limerick GC, Marc Crowe and his son, James (9) were keenly observing the pros' golf swings on the practice ground. James is the youngest golfer ever to win this much sought after trophy and obviously has a big future in the game. James's mathematical ability isn't too shabby either because he converted their winning stableford points score into the number of strokes taken by each of them in the foursomes format as well as reminding me of one of my favourite mantras: every shot counts and every shot must be counted. James was intrigued watching the pros studying ball flight data on portable Trackman Computers. It's the latest, if expensive, way of improving your golf. I still prefer to 'read' the flight of the ball. The Scottish golfer, David Drysdale, agreed with that approach and said he mostly uses Trackman to make sure that his golf clubs are always 'specced properly and not knocked out of whack'. If you don't understand what that means, you'll never be a pro golfer! Mark Kinsella (14) from Castletroy College was a fan of the big-hitting, Spaniard, Jon Rahm. "He hits the ball so high and so far, it's amazing!" Mark is a both a pundit and promising golfer in the making.
In the busy Tournament Village, Clare County Council set up various tents for local food producers to show off and sell their wares. Artisan Cheese maker from the nearby Burren, Grainne Casey of St. Tola Goats Cheese, was taking full advantage of the weather and the huge footfall: "The weather has been a big help and we are delighted with the interest in our cheese amongst the hungry golf fans. It's hard work but we are enjoying it." (www.st-tola.ie) Meanwhile, next door, one could indulge oneself with a Barista Coffee and the 'sinful indulgence' in some Moher Fudge made locally by Catriona Considine at Moher Cottage beside the famous cliffs (www.mohercottage.com)
I met my 13-handicap, niece, Vickie Morris on a week's break from her duties aboard long haul Emirates Airlines flights. She was impressed by the Belgian golfer, Thomas Detry and the German, Martin Kaymer. One Direction's, Niall Horan, who doubles up as the promoter of several touring pros attracted huge attention during the pro-am. "Niall is a terrific ambassador for golf who is undoubtedly helping to attract more (badly needed) young girls into the game" says Vickie, who also attends the season-ending, Race to Dubai every year but remarked: "The Lahinch crowds are bigger and the atmosphere is better".
John Higgins told me he was only a 'casual golfer' who had recently built a house overlooking the golf course. "After experiencing the Irish Open, I'll try to play a bit more". He mentioned having "a tyre blow out the previous evening on the back road to Ennistymon. I thought I might be stranded but seven cars came by almost immediately and five of them, all containing golf fans, stopped and offered assistance. Are all golfers that kind and helpful? He enquired. Mark Nolan, MD at Dromoland Castle Hotel & Golf Resort thought the Irish Open was "a tremendous success story that will benefit County Clare for years to come".
I was delighted to attend and contribute to a 90-minutes audience with the famous TV Broadcaster, Peter Alliss, on the Tuesday evening before the tournament started. At 88, Peter looks well and his mind is as sharp as ever. He appeared genuine when he said: "There is 'something special' about Lahinch and then quoted the famous British golf writer, Bernard Darwin, who said: "Lahinch might not be the best golf course in the world, but it was the golf course I best like to play". I will have more Alliss wit and wisdom in next week's column.
Finally, and don't get me wrong, the Irish Open at Lahinch was a huge success in so many ways except for the course lying down at the player's feet and saying: Tickle me! The only justification (with hindsight) for the 'easy' conditions was that the highest ranked player in the field, Jon Rahm, came out on top.