30 May 2019

Dubai Duty Free Irish Open – Ireland’s historic golfing gem

Dubai Duty Free’s Executive Vice Chairman and CEO Colm McLoughlin talks exclusively to Worldwide Golf’s Richard Bevan ahead of next month’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch GC.

The growth of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in the four years since the airport retailer took over its title sponsorship has been nothing short of phenomenal.

The prize money for the tournament has risen from US$2.78 million to a staggering US$7 million and it became part of the prestigious eight-tournament Rolex Series events in 2017. From 2015 global superstar Rory McIlroy added his name to proceedings as tournament host and this year marks the beginning of a new era where the modern greats of the game in Ireland will rotate hosting duties between them starting this year with the victorious 2014 Ryder Cup Captain Paul McGinley. As sports sponsorships go, it’s fair to say it’s not been a bad move for the world’s leading duty free airport retail operator which last year confirmed its commitment to the tournament by extending their agreement through to 2022, as well as becoming a Partner of the European Tour.

“We’re pleased with the growth of the tournament and from a sponsorship point of view, we’re happy with the Return On Investment (ROI) that is generated,” says Colm McLoughlin, Dubai Duty Free’s Executive Vice Chaiman and CEO as we catch up ahead of the 2019 edition of the event which will take place at Lahinch Golf Club in County Clare for the first time, from July 4-7. “The media coverage generated during the tournament is valued at US$158.5 million and of that US$50.2 million is for the DDF brand. There are a number of measures by which we gauge the success. The TV exposure is very important and it’s essential that the brand exposure continues to be high and global, as Dubai Duty Free is a global brand.

“We also measure the quality of the players in the field and this year’s line-up will be very exciting. I know that Paul McGinley has put in a huge effort to attract many of the top players to confirm, and he has done a great job. We’ve seen the tournament develop quite dramatically since we became title sponsor in 2015 and I’m very happy that it’s now part of the Rolex Series and that the prize money is US$7 million. This year’s tournament is building up to be a very special event and I know that there is a lot of excitement in and around Lahinch, and we are looking forward to being there in July.”

McLoughlin himself is a keen golfer – a fact that has surely had an influence in DDF’s involvement in the sport. As one of the early expat pioneers moving to Dubai back in 1984, he had to settle for the ‘browns’ of the much loved Dubai Country Club sand course due to the lack of grass courses in the UAE prior to the opening of Emirates Golf Club in 1987.


When greens were ‘browns’

“You had to carry a little piece of astroturf round with you, and if the ball landed in an area designated as fairway, you were allowed to play the ball off the mat,” he recalls. “The greens were called ‘browns’ as they were made from compressed sand and oil!” It was a far cry from his previous life in the golfing paradise of Ireland. McLoughlin joined Shannon Airport as manager of the world’s first airport duty free store, the Freeport Shop, in 1969. He became General Manager, overseeing extraordinary growth in the business and catching the eye of Mohidin Bin Hendi, then Director General of Dubai International Airport who brought him over to the UAE with the goal of creating the best duty free operation in the world. Back in County Clare, the Irishman was in his golfing element, playing at the Shannon Airport Golf Club as well as Dromoland Castle and Ennis Golf Club.

Another big favourite was Lahinch, venue for next month’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. The club has been host venue of the prestigious South of Ireland Championship since 1895. It also has a special connection with tournament host Paul McGinley, who won the coveted amateur title back in 1991. “I think that Lahinch was a popular choice for the European Tour and this year’s host, Paul McGinley, supported it due to his long-standing association with the course since his early days,” says McLoughlin. “We liked the choice and we know it well – I was a member there when I worked at Shannon Duty Free, and, of course, there is that link with Shannon and the Duty Free industry, which will make it extra special to be there this year.



Notable Winners

“My wife Breeda is from Co.Clare, so she’s very happy to see the tournament in her home county!” Other notable winners of the South of Ireland Championship include Darren Clarke (1989) and Graeme McDowell (2000) while fellow Major champion Padraig Harrington was runner-up twice. All three will join the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Tournament Host roster along with McGinley and McIlroy. “It’s great that we have such an impressive line-up of Irish golfers ready to step into the hosting role that Rory started back in 2015 and which Paul has taken on this year,” says McLoughlin. “Each host has their own way of approaching the role and that is going to generate a lot of new ideas that will bring a freshness to the tournament, which is a good thing.”

McGinley aims to create a ‘festival’ vibe around this year’s event, with the town of Lahinch, which literally hugs the Dr. Alister MacKenzie-designed course, very much coming into play with music and entertainment featuring alongside the golfing action. “I’ve said it from day one, a festival kind of feeling is what I want,” said the four-time European Tour winner who led Europe to a famous 16 ½-11 ½ victory over the USA in the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, following three victorious appearances in the tournament as a player.

“Hole two goes right up into the middle of the town, 100 yards away from the nearest pub,” says McGinley. “Everything is within walking distance. We’ll be pedestrian-only in the evening, so it will very much be a festival. “The golf course, designed by MacKenzie, who was involved in other courses around the world including Augusta National, will be at the centre.

‘Fantastic line-up of fun’

“It will be the whole package and not just about the golf. A festival is the word I have been using since it was decided to come to Lahinch, I’ve always wanted to create that idea of a festival. Besides the golf there’s the surfing, the great pubs and the craic.”

McLoughlin explains: “The overall attendance and spectator experience is something else that we consider when evaluating the success of our title sponsorship and there is going to be a fantastic line-up of fun activities planned in Lahinch with this ‘festival theme’ planned for the entire week.”

Away from the off-course entertainment, McLoughlin and Dubai Duty Free will be hoping that if the 2019 edition of the Irish Open delivers even half the excitement of last year’s golfing climax where Russell Knox orchestrated what was surely the most dramatic climax in the event’s 91-year history. The Scotsman holed a 40-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole to get into a play-off with New Zealand’s Ryan Fox before holing an almost identical putt on the first extra hole to take the title. A stellar cast has already signed up for the for next month’s event including home favourites Clarke, McDowell and Harrington; 2009 winner Shane Lowry; 2016 Olympian Seamus Power and, of course, the Tournament Host.

Then there are top-class international stars such as 2017 Race to Dubai Champion Tommy Fleetwood, Ryder Cup legends Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood, 2010 Open Champion Louis Oosthuizen, triumphant 2018 Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjørn and defending champion Knox. With an elite field playing for one of the biggest prize funds in golf, a festival of fun away from the course and the continuing support of a truly enthusiastic title sponsor, the 2019 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open has all the ingredients required to serve up another classic sporting occasion in Lahinch.

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