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Murphy's end sponsorship of Irish Open

After almost a decade as title sponsors of the tournament, Murphy's have called time on their sponsorship of the Irish Open. This year's event at Fota Island - on June 27th-30th - will be the last to be sponsored by the brewing company, and marks the conclusion of one of the longest running associations in Irish sport.

In their nine years as sponsors, Heineken Ireland injected an estimated €25 million into promoting the tournament.

"Any sponsorship is a finite property because there comes a period where the benefit that one derives relative to the investment becomes disproportionate," explained Padraic Liston, the company's managing director, in making the announcement yesterday.

Although a new title sponsor has yet to be finalised, Murray Consultants, who manage the tournament, are "95 per cent there" in securing a successor for the 2003 staging of one of the oldest events on the European Tour calendar.

There is also the possibility that the championship could be held in Northern Ireland (for the first time since 1953, when it was held at Belvoir Park), but tournament director David Linnane claimed this was "pure speculation".

Murphy's took over the sponsorship of the Irish Open in 1994 from Carrolls, who had sponsored the tournament since it was revived in 1975. In that time, the company was responsible for doubling the prizefund - from €800,000 to its current level of €1.6 million - and took a firm stand in the decision not to pay appearance money to players.

They also brought in a policy of rotating the tournament to different courses around the country.

The decision to end the sponsorship came after a strategic review and a revised marketing strategy to concentrate "on our Cork heartland and Munster", according to Liston.

However, while conceding that he would have preferred a situation where the Irish Open and European Open were not played in back-to-back weeks, something that was implemented for the first time three years ago, Liston said it was "not a significant factor" in coming to the decision to end the sponsorship.

That move to hold successive tournaments in Ireland did mean, however, that it was not possible to hold them in the same geographical region.

"As we'd already made the decision to come south, to Ballybunion and Fota, I don't think it was a significant factor. We had the galleries, and we were very successful in corporate hospitality sales, which would have been the two areas that it impacted," said Liston.

"I'd prefer if they were not back-to-back," admitted Liston, "but the decision was made and it was a bridge that we had to cross. We took it on the chin and moved on based on the regard we had for the event and for the Irish golfing public and the property that we had.

"We were proud to be custodians of the Irish Open and to have brought it to a level where it is enjoyed by golfers and non-golfers alike.

"This was a new venture for us and our intention was to build on what we had got, which I believe we have successfully done.

"Having revised our marketing strategy to concentrate on our Cork heartland and Munster, and recognising that we were going to rotate it out of Cork, where it wasn't sustainable to stay, we looked at the bigger picture and felt the time was right to hand over the mantle to a new sponsor who hopefully can continue to develop the event and bring it on to the next level," said Liston, who added that he felt it was an "attractive proposition" for whoever succeeds them as title sponsor.

He estimated a new sponsor should "stay a minimum of five years", adding, "after that, it is how it works for you and if it is consistent for your strategy.

"When Murphy's assumed sponsorship in 1994, the Irish Open was the only European Tour event in the country."

All of which is in stark contrast to the situation this year when it is one of five full events - along with the European Open, North West of Ireland Open, Seve Trophy and American Express world championship - while there are also the Irish Women's Open and the Irish Seniors Open.

As such, there is a danger that saturation point may have been reached in terms of the number of tournaments held in Ireland, and Liston expressed the viewpoint that "in my experience of business, you're better to have fewer bigger than many smaller with regard to making an impact".

Following on the success of last year's hosting of the tournament in Fota Island, Liston promised that Murphy's would "go out with a bang" in attempting to make this year's tournament another memorable one. But that doesn't mean they will fork out appearance money.

"I'm not for turning on that issue. It is a simple numbers game. Outside of the merits of how you can pick two or three people and pay them appearance fees and expect people of equal status to arrive on a handshake or because they like us, it is basically disloyal."

The ownership of the Irish Open was passed from Murphy's back to the European Tour on February 28th - "there was no money involved," stated Liston - as the contractual obligation was on the company to inform the tour 16 months in advance that they would not be sponsoring the event. Murray Consultants, who have been endorsed by the European Tour to promote the tournament for future years, have been in discussions with potential sponsors for some time and "negotiations have progressed to an advanced stage with two parties" and an agreement lasting a number of years is expected to be concluded shortly.

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