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“If the wind gets up, this will be one tough course.” So said defending Dubai Duty Free Irish Open champion Russell Knox as we strolled along one of the mighty fairways at Lahinch, as this year’s running of one of Europe’s great golfing occasions began with a Pro-Am event on Wednesday. “What do you mean, Russell?” I thought to myself. “There’s no wind, the sun is out and still this is easily the toughest course I’ve ever played!”
Admittedly my performance was not helped by dodgy chips, misread putts and wayward drives, including one horrendous tee-off that was so far left it nearly scalped the members watching from the clubhouse.
And yet…it was also one of the great days, enabled by the good humour and modesty of Knox, who I hope can go back to back and win this week. With his spectacular ball striking, he has every chance.
After taking place last year on the northern tip of Donegal in Ballyliffin, the Dubai Duty Free-sponsored tournament (which runs from Thursday to Sunday) has come to this gem of a course in Ireland’s mid-west. Lahinch has sea views to die for from the tee boxes, beautifully creative golf holes carved from the land and deep bunkers you could enter and never emerge from on a bad day. Tough yes, but hugely memorable (the sun, a rarity in these parts, even came out too) and simply what golf should be: fun.
That it was a special day was also down to my other playing partners, John Sutcliffe and Sunil Tuli, alongside my trusted caddie David Spillane, as we made up one of several Dubai Duty Free teams at the Pro-Am event.
As the images show, we sure did stand out with our yellow and blue shirts. An unusual combo? Not exactly, at least not in these parts. They’re the colours of County Clare, where Lahinch is situated – and indeed the birthplace of duty free (Shannon Airport is around 30 minutes away), as well as being the county of Breeda McLoughlin, wife of Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin (who himself is from just over the border in Galway).
And I wasn’t the only one who thought it tough. As Colm noted at the prize giving later (our team finished fourth): “I last played here around 40 years ago and was a member. Something has changed though, maybe the fact that the course is about four times as long as it was then, or maybe it just felt that way!”
As always here and at their other events, Dubai Duty Free makes you feel special, from the moment you arrive until the moment you leave. That’s a tribute to Colm and to Senior VP Marketing Sinead el Sibai and her terrific team, including this week Anna, Jasmin and Andy.
What makes it memorable too is the welcome of the local community, which host Paul McGinley reflected on with some fine words at the prize giving.
“I want Dubai Duty Free to feel that coming here was a great idea, and that they get great exposure. I want the European Tour to feel that selecting this venue was worthwhile, but my biggest wish is that the community enjoys and embraces these few days, as they have until now. In the UK and Ireland we see most of the big events, sporting and otherwise, taking place in the big cities.
“The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open shows that bringing this event to smaller, less travelled venues doesn’t mean fewer people or less interest; in fact it often means more. People here are starved of top-class sport – unless you count Munster rugby (said with a wry smile) – and they are taking this event to their hearts. I hope they are proud.”
McGinley has spoken about creating a festival here in the town, and that’s exactly what it is like with bunting (Dubai Duty Free-branded of course) adorning shop fronts; the bars and restaurants all packed and a gala atmosphere around. The week has only just begun, but this Dubai Duty Free Irish Open could be one of the greatest yet, partly for the sport but maybe more importantly for the legacy it leaves in this corner of the world.