Mounting a challenge at Mount Juliet

“It’s not how, it’s how many.” With that well-worn golf phrase and a wry smile did Paraguayan pro Fabrizio Zanotti try to temper my disaffection with another ropey golf shot at the Horizon Irish Open Pro Am at Mount Juliet, County Kilkenny on Wednesday.

There I was a guest of Executive Vice Chairman and CEO Colm McLoughlin and the wonderful team at Dubai Duty Free; the company was title sponsor of the Irish Open until last year (and was a key influence in rebuilding the event’s status from 2015 onwards) and is now a partner in the event.

Warm welcome: Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin (third right) and his wife Breeda, along with Irish golf pro Des Smyth (left) give a final pep talk to Dubai Duty Free team competitors Sunil Tuli (third left) and Dermot Davitt (second right), with Davitt’s caddie David Spillane (right) giving off a confident air about Davitt’s abilities of impressing in the round to come
Dermot Davitt, Sunil and Shikha Tuli and David Spillane ignore the dark clouds as tee-off time approaches

Dubai Duty Free had three teams in the Pro-Am, and I can tell you that to be selected on one of them is our industry’s equivalent of winning the sporting lottery. The chance to play a majestic course, one of the greatest in my home country. Tick. Unparalleled hospitality. Tick. Superb organisation via the DDF team despite some last-minute COVID related interventions. Tick and tick again.

Danish golf pro Soren Kjeldsen (second right), winner of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in 2015, with playing partners Tom Barry, Dermot Davitt and Arthur Spring. Below, David Spillane and Dermot Davitt with Soren Kjeldsen. 

Back to the tenth hole where Fabrizio was attempting to keep me on the straight (no easy task) and narrow (almost impossible given how wide I was hitting some shots, as my ever-honest caddie David Spillane told me).

The aforementioned hoof that Fabrizio concerned himself with came straight off the heel of the club but somehow landed in the general direction of the hole. It followed a succession of loose drives, wayward iron shots and duffed chips – but fortunately I managed a series of solid putts that kept my humour intact, the score moving and, perhaps more importantly, my playing partners (the estimable Arthur Spring and Tom Barry) from pretending they didn’t know me.

Dubai Duty Free team Sunil Tuli, Augustine Fox and Vicki Smyth with pro Matthieu Pavon. Below, Tuli avoids nearby farmland on his first drive

Fabrizio, a lovely young man, was charm and calm personified on the back nine. So too was Dane Soren Kjeldsen, the pro who accompanied us on the front nine, generously reading our putts (probably the key reason I holed any) and generally offering patient words of wisdom about how to approach the game to slow-learning amateurs (in my case certainly).

Their contributions give the lie to lazy comments about professional sportspeople being out of touch with the rest of humanity; Soren and Fabrizio (and others we have met at this high-profile event) are generous, giving and unguarded.

Pro Fabrizio Zanotti with the Dubai Duty Free team of (from left) Dermot Davitt, Tom Barry and Arthur Spring
A welcome view of Dubai Duty Free branding alongside title sponsor Horizon and DP World; the retailer helped resurrect the Irish Open from 2015 onwards with prize money and the attraction of major golf stars

And after the mixed performances from me and my amateur colleagues today, well, we did OK. Striding up the 18th, it looked as if we might even be in sight of a prize. For us, the sight of a live scoreboard with our team listed in the top three is both incentive and pressure-inducer.

In with a chance? As we hit the 18th green, Team Kjeldsen/Zanotti was third

In the end we missed out on the prizes but what we didn’t miss out on was another day of wonderful memories courtesy of Dubai Duty Free, our time spent between the ropes with some of the world’s great golfers and the certainty that these days out are to be treasured for the rarities they are.

Sunil Tuli sprinkles some stardust on actor James Nesbitt, whose team won the Pro Am later in the day

Update: On Thursday 30 June Dubai Duty Free hosted guests at its pavilion in a tremendous location overlooking the ninth and 18th greens. Crowds of 20,000 a day are expected through to Sunday after limited attendance in the past two years. Thousands followed Irish heroes Padraig Harrington, Shane Lowry and Seamus Power on day one.

On the weekend that Ireland face New Zealand in the first of three rugby tests in Auckland (click here for our reader competition in association with Walsh Whiskey), it was perhaps appropriate that a Kiwi, Grant Fox, surged into the lead with a stunning round of 64 shots. Ryan’s father Grant Fox is a famous former New Zealand out-half.

With Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin and Duty Free Global Founder & Commercial Director Barry Geoghegan at the Dubai Duty Free Pavilion on Thursday
Leader Ryan Fox (centre) pays a visit to Dubai Duty Free, where he meets Colm McLoughlin and Dubai Duty Free brand ambassador Des Smyth
Ryan, meet Brian: Horizon Irish Open day one leader Ryan Fox meets Brian Rigney (Drumshanbo Gunpowder gin) who played against his father in two Ireland-New Zealand clashes in the 1990s

He paid a visit to the Dubai Duty Free lounge later on to talk not just about golf but rugby too. By coincidence, former Irish rugby player Brian Rigney, now well known in travel retail circles for representing Drumshanbo Gunpowder gin, was visiting Dubai Duty Free, and had played against Grant back in the 1990s. At that stage, Ireland had never beaten New Zealand in a rugby international, though we have done so three times since. Roll on Saturday, and perhaps number four…

Irish hero Padraig Harrington (who last week won the US Senior Open) putts for eagle on the eighth, followed by a huge crowd of hopeful locals. Below, another Irish golfer Seamus Power, who has been performing superbly in the US, drains a putt for a fine 66.