Irish Open: Ballyliffin shines bright on big stage

By John HaugheyBBC Sport NI at Ballyliffin
Over 94,000 people came to Ballyliffin during the Irish Open

So this week's Irish Open at Ballyliffin - a weather-aided triumph for a previously neglected Donegal or a well-meaning but ultimately misguided experiment in golfing decentralisation?

The former, insists Paul McGinley although granted the victorious 2014 European Ryder Cup captain is a man with strong Donegal family connections.

McGinley believes the frankly remarkable crowd figures of 94,239 for the five days - including pro-am - totally vindicates the European Tour's decision to take a punt on the vision of Ballyliffin's general manager John Farren.

The word in the tented village in the days before the event was that an 80,000 tally for the five days would be a par figure.

For his part, Farren spoke optimistically of his belief that Donegal and the north west region would deliver to the tune of 90,000 coming in through the gates.

In the end, even the diligent Ballyliffin chief underestimated the event's appeal as the glorious weather early in the week generated a momentum which even the occasional rain showers of the weekend could not halt.

The final crowd figure exceeded last year's tally at Portstewart by almost 2,000 which has to be regarded as a remarkable feat by tournament organisers.

"I think the whole week was beyond expectations," says McGinley, who competed in the first two days of the event.

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"In terms of the exposure the event got, there's 50 or 60 million people who know about Donegal now who didn't know anything about it at the start of the week.

"That's the value of bringing a tournament to an area like Ballyliffin.

"It's not just this week and everybody coming. It's the legacy we leave behind and hopefully some more visitors come and visit now and spend money and play courses like Ballyliffin.

"They will stay in the local hotels and drink the beer and eat the food and leave money behind and that money can be invested in improving the county."

The TV pictures of a blue sky above the lapping waves on the golden Pollan Strand as Glashedy Rock loomed majestically in the distance could have made one think that the tournament was being hosted in Cape Town or Hawaii or some such glamorous location.

Never have the weather gods shone so brightly and crucially on Donegal.

Going into the week, the event's potential Achilles heel was always going to be the lack of depth in the field with tournament host Rory McIlroy and defending champion Jon Rahm the only truly big global names on show.

And that was despite the tournament being one of the prestigious Rolex Series events with a $7m prize fund and having more ranking points than this week's PGA Tour event at the Greenbrier.

Rafa Cabrera Bello, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Kiradech Aphibarnrat were the only other members of the world's top 50 teeing up on the Glashedy links as the field lacked the presence of other big names such as Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama who have graced the event in recent years.

The sight of unfamiliar names on the leaderboard for much of the tournament only served to feed into that narrative as comparative unknown Erik van Rooyen took a four-shot lead into the final round.

Rory McIlroy hosted the Irish Open for the last time at Ballyliffin

However, McGinley believes this issue was overplayed with McIlroy's sheer presence - in addition to the glorious weather - a more than compensatory factor.

"You know what, once you have Rory McIlroy playing, that takes care of a lot.

"Everything else is a bonus after that. I'm not that bothered about x player or y player not being here.

"Yes it would be nice to have one or two of the Americans come but ultimately the success is not dependent on the quality of the field.

"It's more dependent on the weather and we've been blessed with the weather.

"Would I prefer to have had the quality of the field we had in Royal County Down and terrible weather or would I rather be here with the field we had and unbelievable weather?

"They've been lucky here where as Royal County Down wasn't lucky."

Indeed, when this week is looked back on, it's the weather and the light it shone on the spectacular local scenery which will be remembered, in addition to the fact that Ballyliffin's Glashedy links provided a stern but fair task to the assembled players.

McIlroy's words as he departed on Sunday summed up a seemingly universal view from the locker room on the week.

"It's been incredible. A lot of people were asking me what Ballyliffin was like and I was telling them that it's a hidden gem.

"Ballyliffin has been showcased in all its glory."

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