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Though absent, Rory McIlroy boosts Irish Open

The Irish Open is being held this week at Lahinch Golf Club, and yet Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland’s favorite son, is nowhere to be found.

The Irish Open is being held this week at Lahinch Golf Club, located on the southwest coast in County Clare, one of those places that simply make you want to throw the bag over your shoulder and go play. And yet Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland’s favorite son, is nowhere to be found. He is skipping the event for the first time in his professional career in order to prep for the British Open at Royal Portrush, which returns to his home country in less than two weeks for the first time since 1951.

“If there is ever a year when I feel I can miss the Irish Open, it’s this year,” McIlroy said in February. “If I was to play the Irish Open, the Open Championship would be my third event in a row. For me, that’s not the best way to prepare for what could be the biggest event of my life.”

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy will lead the PGA Tour's 'A-list' talent in the season restart at Colonial.

Instead, McIlroy will headline the field at next week’s Scottish Open. The last time McIlroy won a major, at the 2014 PGA Championship, he not only played the week before, but he won, and he expressed regret at not playing the week before the Masters in April. Suffice it to say that McIlroy is well aware that six of the past nine British Open winners teed it up in the Scottish the previous week. Now, you could argue that playing three tournaments in a row shouldn’t be such a hardship, but he’s got a system for peaking at the majors, and he’s sticking to it.

McIlroy caused quite the uproar in Ireland when he announced in February his plan to skip his national championship. Roy Curtis, one of Ireland’s most respected sportswriters, skewered McIlroy for the decision in the Irish Independent.

“Rory McIlroy might as well have serrated the edge of an old lob wedge and thrust it into Paul McGinley's ribcage,” Curtis wrote, a reference to McIlroy’s 2014 European Tour captain, who is playing the role of tournament host this week. “His snubbing is the equivalent of emptying the contents of a septic tank onto Lahinch's world-famous Dell and Klondyke putting surfaces.”

Curtis poured it on a little thick, if you ask me. Though McGinley surely wishes McIlroy had turned up this week, he accepted – at least publicly – that McIlroy’s absence is a “sign of the times.”

In other words, the top pros are playing fewer events due to the nature of a worldwide schedule that seemingly has no end. Every week, there’s a chance to win seven-figure purses somewhere, which actually has been counterproductive in that prize money is no longer much of a lure. But the real reason that McGinley didn’t lash out at McIlroy – Curtis went so far as to say “his sense of duty has been snap-hooked out of bounds” – is because McGinley gets the bigger picture of what McIlroy has meant to the Irish Open.

"He saved the thing single-handedly," said McGinley, a four-time winner on the European Tour who now works as a commentator for Sky Sports more than he plays.

This assertion, on the other hand, is hardly hyperbole. McIlroy sparked a renaissance of a tournament dating to 1927 at Portmarnock in Dublin, joined the European Tour in 1975, and has been part of the very fabric of this golfing nation. Padraig Harrington, the 2007 champion and leader after Thursday’s first round, called it the highlight of the golf season. It usually was held around the British Open and attracted some of the game's biggest stars – Seve Ballesteros, Ben Crenshaw, and Nick Faldo are among its champions – in a time before every tournament was beamed to all corners by television.

"It was like a festival back in those days," Harrington said.

Yet the event was in danger of disappearing from the European Tour schedule after losing its title sponsor in 2010. The following year, the purse was halved from 3 million euros, leaving Discover Ireland, operated by Ireland's National Tourism Development Authority, the European Tour, and a patchwork of secondary sponsors to shoulder the financial burden.

At the same time, Irish professional golf was experiencing a run of glory. Harrington won three majors in 2007-08; Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell claimed the 2010 U.S. Open; Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke won the 2012 British Open; and McIlroy racked up four majors in 2011-14.

“It would’ve been incongruous for the European Tour to have these great champions from Ireland and the North and there not be an Irish Open, but the fact remained there was nobody willing to sponsor it other than government money from the tourism boards,” said James Finnigan, commercial director of the Irish Open.

And that’s where McIlroy enters the story. Discussions with his camp began five years ago at the European PGA Championship. At the 2014 Players Championship, Finnigan met McIlroy for breakfast and heard words that were music to his ears: “He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to turn this around.’ ”

With McIlroy’s support and some back-room negotiating, the tournament received a better date on the schedule, the rotation of courses has been elevated – notably, with Royal County Down in 2015, Portstewart Golf Club in 2017 and Lahinch this year – and the purse jumped dramatically. His instant credibility brought stability and played an instrumental role in signing Dubai Duty Free as title sponsor, which spurred a 25-percent purse hike, to 2.5 million euros in its initial year, and skyrocketed to 7 million euros as part of the Rolex Series. McIlroy was the driving force in making the annual gathering in his own backyard a major happening again.

Moreover, McIlroy put the Irish Open at the forefront of his philanthropic work. After playing host for several years and wooing the likes of Ernie Els to come play, McIlroy passed the baton to McGinley and expects the likes of Clarke, Harrington and McDowell to follow suit as hosts in future years.

The only thing McIlroy failed to do was persuade European Tour commissioner Keith Pelley to grant the Irish Open the week before Portrush as the prelude to the major. (The Scottish Open must have some good lawyers or paid a pretty penny to lock in those dates.) As a result, McIlroy is taking a one-year sabbatical from the Irish Open. If anyone has earned a get-out-of-jail-free card, it’s him.

“I never thought I would play a major in Northern Ireland,” McIlroy said.

It’s been 68 years since anyone has, so it’s hard to blame McIlroy for being caught up in the excitement. So, he’ll be missed this time around, but it’s only because his eyes are on an even bigger prize: the Claret Jug.

“It would be the biggest achievement of my career if I was able to win it,” he said.

Not far behind making sure that the Irish Open was on solid footing again.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak