Ballyliffin confounds sceptics to land 2018 Irish Open

The 15th hole on the Glashedy course
Ballyliffin's Glashedy course is named after the small island off the coastline of Pollan Bay

Ah the 1980s and that annual summer ritual - the trip up on the Derry-Dublin bus to see Seve, Langer and Co at the Irish Open at either Portmarnock or Royal Dublin.

With a wonderful uncle and aunt in the big smoke giving me free rein to spend as much time as a sports-mad youngster wanted at "the golf", the week was one of the highlights of my teenage existence.

Seeing your bronzed heroes bestriding the fairways like golfing colossuses (and they always had great tans) plus those nights out in the Irish capital.

Back then the notion that an Irish Open would ever be staged in my native Inishowen would have seemed laughable.

But thirty-something years on and we have confirmation it's going to happen when Ballyliffin's Glashedy links host next year's tournament from 5-8 July.

Ironically, the man who always supplied my two freebie tickets to wander the fairways of the north Dublin courses, a newsagent uncle of mine in Carndonagh, was a member and indeed former captain of Ballyliffin.

PH Doherty, the father of a former member of the Galway folk-rock band the Saw Doctors, later became president of the club and still enjoys his regular golf game although he like many members, prefers the original Old Course track.

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Ballyliffin's staging of next year's Irish Open set to boost entire North West

Farren instrumental in Ballyliffin's successful bid

Such thoughts entered my mind when I spoke to Ballyliffin Golf Club's general manager John Farren after Sunday's announcement.

"I started here in this job at Ballyliffin 14 years ago and my father said to me: 'You'll never see it in your lifetime'," smiled John, who was instrumental in steering the club's bid to host the event.

"I'm glad to say that he's been proved wrong for a change.

"Bringing an Irish Open to the K Club or to Ballybunion or Portmarnock has an impact on the local economy but the level of impact this will have on Donegal and Derry is going to be a multiple of that because we haven't had this before."

The figure bandied about for the economic impact of an Irish Open is in the region of an astonishing 100m Euro and the TV reach of the European Tour event means in excess of 420 million homes throughout the world will be in a position to watch the Ballyliffin event.

"Then you start to consider the long-term benefits to the club and the county councils and all our partners that will come on board in bringing the event to Ballyliffin," continues Farren.

"The cross-border element is important. Because of our proximity to the border and Derry being our main centre of population in the area, we are working with both Donegal and Derry/Strabane Councils in bringing this event to Ballyliffin.

"Ballyliffin is basically a suburb of Derry. We are a cross-border community. Most of our members either work or live in Derry and we don't really see the border."

Martin McGuinness
The late Martin McGuinness was among those strongly endorsing Ballyliffin's bid for the Irish Open

McGuinness among Ballyliffin's backers

Political supporters of Ballyliffin's mission included influential Derry politicians John Hume and the late Martin McGuinness who, Farren says, endorsed the club's bid to the European Tour less than a year ago.

"He saw the benefit to Derry and the cross-border benefits of Ballyliffin hosting the Irish Open. Martin McGuinness' love for Donegal was always evident but he forged a relationship with the European Tour when the Irish Open returned to Northern Ireland.

"For so long, this was a forgotten part of Ireland. Obviously the peace process was the biggest impact on this area over the past 40 or 50 years.

"Finally we can see the benefits of that with the tournament having come to the north coast (on both sides of border) with Portrush in 2012, Portstewart this year and Ballyliffin next year.

"We're finally seeing the true potential of the north coast being the destination for international visitors coming to play golf in Ireland."

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Rahm vows to defend Irish Open title at Ballyliffin in 2018

But the arrival of world stars such as tournament host Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm next year will be a far cry from the club's humble beginnings.

After the lease on the Ballyliffin club's initial nine holes of land was about to run out in the late 1960s, prolific Irish golf course architect Eddie Hackett was tasked with designing a new 18 and that, with a number of alternations including Nick Faldo's 2006 revamp, forms the Old Course which hosted the Senior Irish Open in 2008.

By then the Pat Ruddy-designed Glashedy course was already in situ having hosted both the 1998 Irish Ladies Open and the European Challenge Tour's North West of Ireland Open in 2002.

Faldo's fondness for Ballyliffin even extended to him attempting to buy the club in mid-1990s, with his offer declined amid a politeness which ensured relations with the English great remain cordial to the present day.

Rory McIlroy in action at Ballyliffin
Rory McIlroy played regularly at Ballyliffin in his youth and continues to be a great supporter of the club

But Rory McIlroy has proved an even more influential advocate of Ballyliffin's charms in recent times.

He arrived at Ballyliffin by helicopter with the US Open trophy in June 2011 a couple of days after his first major triumph at Congressional and John Farren makes no attempt to downplay McIlroy's role in helping to secure the Irish Open.

"The Rory factor and his help and influence in convincing people that Ballyliffin is a worthy venue shouldn't be underestimated. We'll be grateful to Rory forever for it. I have to say as well that Graeme McDowell has a fantastic supporter of the club."

With a new tee at the par-five fourth the main component in lengthening the Glashedy by just over 200 yards to 7,423, there is no argument about the course being good enough to host an Irish Open.

Some naysayers, however, have wondered about the surrounding area's infrastructure in handling one of the world's biggest golf tournaments but the Ballyliffin general manager has no concerns in this regard.

"We have so much space here that we'll have parking for 12,000 cars and accommodation-wise, we have great stock within easy reach.

The view from behind the newly-extended fourth hole on Ballyliffin's Glashedy links
The par-five fourth hole on the Glashedy links has been extended to 115 yards to almost 600 yards

"Anywhere on the Inishowen Peninsula is no more than 25 minutes from here. Derry is 35 minutes from here. Letterkenny 45 or 50 minutes.

"Even in the case of guys playing in an Irish Open in the K Club or somewhere around Dublin, the average transit to the club from a hotel in Dublin is 40 or 50 minutes. We can get people here quickly.

"We have four hotels in the village. We have the Redcastle Hotel just out the road. A few hotels in Buncrana. A lot of people will be taking houses and there is no shortage of holiday houses particularly in Donegal."

For every potential problem that you venture, John Farren sees a solution.

"The European Tour are convinced that the infrastructure is here. They have seen the can do attitude of the club and the people of the area and the overall enthusiasm of the people of Donegal and Derry to bring this event here.

"Everybody appreciates that this is going to be a big deal for the area and it's not something we're going to take for granted. We're going to put our best foot forward."

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