With The Open Championship returning in 2019 to Northern Ireland for just the second time - the first coming in 1951 - and with the Irish Open being staged for the first time at Lahinch, Mark Gannon provides an insider’s perspective on what is shaping up to be the most anticipated year ever in the history of Irish golf. Gannon has personally observed a myriad of dimensions tied to the many aspects of Irish golf and his relationships with the various clubs throughout the country provides him an understanding few, if any, can match.
Mark Gannon is one of Ireland’s most decorated amateur golfers. Only two men in history have won the Irish Boys, Irish Youths and Irish Men’s golf championships - Mark is one, and Rory McIlroy is the other. Mark also won more than 100 caps for Ireland and was on two Triple Crown winning teams.
Gannon was Irish Men’s Captain from 2003 - 2006 and was a Walker Cup selector in 2007 for GB & I at Royal County Down, a match featuring the likes of Rory McIlroy, Danny Willet, Dustin Johnson, Ricky Fowler, Billy Horschel and Webb Simpson.
Nowadays, the 66-year-old is a co-founder and ambassador for G Golf Ireland, a family golf tour business he set up with his brother Frank, another champion Irish golfer. G Golf Ireland is a VIP golf tour operator offering bespoke luxury golf tours in Ireland, Scotland and continental Europe.
The Gannon Story
I grew up in a house 50 yards from the 10th green in Co. Louth (Baltray), one of Ireland’s finest links courses. When I was seven or eight years of age it wasn’t hide and seek in the fescue for me. My mother would shove me out the back door with a “Get out there and practise your golf.” You could say it’s in my DNA. After a long and enjoyable career in amateur golf I’m now an ambassador for G Golf Ireland. We specialise in luxury, bespoke golf holidays - our USP is that every group is accompanied by an elite golfer who has played the game to the highest level and acts as an on and off course guide. Our many years of experience gives us that special edge.
You wake up in the morning - what’s the driving passion?
Family comes first - then golf. I still enjoy playing and keeping up-to-date with the golf world. The great thing about golf is that if your health is okay, you can play into your 70s or older. And I still love it.
In 2019, The Open Championship returns for the first time since 1951. The Irish Open will also be going to Lahinch for the first time and the event has moved up considerably as part of the Rolex Series of events. What’s your take on the overall impact both of these events will mean for the country overall?
Obviously, it’s a massive boost for Ireland, and Irish golf, to be hosting the Open in Portrush. Portrush is my personal favourite course, always hugely enjoyable to play. Paul McGinley was perhaps Europe’s greatest Ryder Cup Captain and is hosting the Irish Open for the first time at Lahinch next year. I have no doubt Paul will be a wonderful host and Lahinch is very special to me because of my history there. I won the South of Ireland championship at Lahinch twice and the Home Internationals in 1987, when Ireland became first time triple crown winners. It’s a great location and I’ve had more personal success there than anywhere. From a golf tourism point of view, the images of the Open and the Irish Open that will go out around the world are worth several fortunes in advertising and marketing value.
Given your successful past involvement with high level amateur golf in Ireland, how does such success add to your perspective in working with visitors when coming to Ireland on holiday?
Both myself and my brother Frank have been involved in Irish golf at an elite level since the 1960’s. Throughout our lives we’ve played every inch of links from Waterville in south west Ireland to Royal Dornoch in north east Scotland. All of our G Golf Ambassadors are current or former champion golfers, so we have a very personal connection and history with all the top courses in Ireland and Scotland. This is invaluable for our clients. Our clients love to hear stories and experience the direct connections we have, from photo’s on clubhouse walls to the relationships that we’ve built up over years with starters, head caddies, club captains, etc.
What’s the biggest mistake many visitors make when making plans to travel to Ireland for a golf experience?
Expecting to be able to do it all themselves and ending up with a lot of unnecessary travel, or sometimes impossible distances to cover to make tee times! Putting a good itinerary together for a group is complicated, and there are a lot of moving parts. We had a client recently that I think described it best. “From the moment we landed, I could host the entire trip without needing to manage a single element. There’s a lot to a golf trip in Ireland, and it’s worth using the experts.
What separates the Irish experience versus that of others - whether in Europe, Asia or North America?
The people! We call it “the Craic”. It really is the difference. That and the incredible links courses we have. There’s nowhere else on earth you can experience what’s here in Ireland and Scotland - the links courses. You just can’t get it anywhere else. We have such a huge selection, and all top class. Tom Coyne, author of the books “A course called Ireland” and “A course called Scotland”, recently ranked Ireland v Scotland in a “match” to decide which nation really is the King of Golf and Ireland won 1 up! We shaded it over the Scots because of the natural ability of Irish people to be great hosts and the way we tend to send our visitors home with great memories and smiles on their faces.
Identify the biggest short and long term challenge facing the Irish golf market.
Brexit is the most obvious short and long term threat. Will it really have an impact? Long term - I don’t see a negative effect on the Irish golf market. If anything, it could drive more golfers to Ireland. I can’t see there ever being a return to a hard border, thankfully there is firm commitment from all politicians involved in the Brexit negotiations to avoid a hard border - it would cause chaos. The other challenge is rising costs. The hospitality industry, of which golf is a part, has a history of boom and bust cycles. It’s important costs for green fees, hotels, etc, are maintained at sustainable levels.
There has been much discussion on how the resolution talks concerning Brexit will impact Northern Ireland and Ireland. What is your take on the situation and how do you see things working out in ‘19?
I see little or no impact from a golf tourism point of view. If anything, Brexit may encourage more visitors to Ireland, as Irish government policy has focused very heavily in recent years on developing new markets to reduce our reliance on the UK. You can already see the effects of that with dozens of new direct air routes from North America to Ireland now in place. We also recently gained new direct air routes from mainland China into Ireland - a potential game changer. I can’t see any possibility of a hard border. The Open 2019 is already sold out and golf in Northern Ireland at the top venues is nearly fully booked for the 2019 summer season. So, 2019 is set to be a record breaking year for Irish golf.
If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally - what would it be and why?
One thing that frustrates me, in particular watching golf on TV, is the pace of play, especially on greens. Pro’s with their notebooks on the green and the general pace of play is not good. Normally everyone follows the leaders, so the risk is that amateur golfers start pulling out notebooks too. If it continues like the pro game, who’d want that? Perhaps time limits on the greens is something that could be considered. The new proposed rules changes in 2019 will hopefully help.
The major global golf organisations - R&A, USGA, PGA of America, European Tour, PGA Tour, LPGA - are all seeking ways to attract new players to the game. This is especially so for Millennials, women and minorities. If you were counselling them what would you advise be done?
People don’t have time to spend a full day away with 4 to 5 hours on a course. There’s a lot to consider and for someone with a young family it’s a huge ask too. Cost is a factor too. What can we do? Cheaper rates for different types of membership would help. And speed the game up. More affordable golf that takes less time will attract more people into the game.
Best advice you ever received - what was it and who from?
One that has stuck with me all these years is from my mother Nancy. When we used to walk out our backdoor, clubs over our shoulders, my mother would always call out “Never give up!” Before we played she would always say, as my brother Frank knows: “The last three holes are just as important as the first three!” A great example is when I won the Irish Close Championship in 77. I was 6 down to Tony Hayes after ten in the final and went on to win it on the 19th. You might have a bad start, but you can always have a good finish. My mother was always my biggest hero.
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