Pre­par­ing Portrush

How the Queen, a gi­ant pizza cut­ter, Dar­ren Clarke and a se­cret tun­nel are com­bin­ing to get Royal Portrush ready to host the 2019 Open ....


Royal Birk­dale will be busy right now. With a mat­ter of weeks to go be­fore it hosts The Open, work will start at dawn and end at dusk. At Carnoustie, too, there will be lots of meet­ings, plan­ning and tweaks to the An­gus links as it read­ies it­self for the 2018 event. Pre­par­ing for an Open doesn’t start the day af­ter the pre­vi­ous one ends.

In the case of the venue for 2019, it be­gan even ear­lier. Four years ago, in fact – 72 months be­fore the first ball will be struck in that year’s cham­pi­onship. That was when then-R&A chief Pe­ter Daw­son and his pre­ferred course ar­chi­tect Martin Ebert took a stroll round the Ir­ish links. It was when the dream of The Open re­turn­ing to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951 started to be­come more than just a nice idea.

That day, Ebert pointed out to

Daw­son the ter­rain – ma­jes­tic, tow­er­ing duneland at that – on which two new holes could be built to give the venue the space es­sen­tial for the cir­cus that is al­ways part of a mod­ern-day ma­jor.

Daw­son, not a man to be daz­zled eas­ily, was im­pressed. But he wasn’t con­vinced, and was ea­ger to see how the links stood up to the task of host­ing that sum­mer’s Ir­ish Open.

The R&A went “al­most in dis­guise” as Ebert says, to mon­i­tor how it went. Record crowds flocked across the linksland and no-one was sug­gest­ing a

Portrush Open wouldn’t be an epic Open. But could it ac­tu­ally be pulled off?

Ebert was asked to as­sess the course and his re­port two years later was the corner­stone for Portrush’s fi­nal push. Mean­while, the club’s sec­re­tary Wilma Ersk­ine – a smart, dy­namic woman – ral­lied the North­ern Ir­ish gov­ern­ment for back­ing (there are ru­mours of her camp­ing out­side First Min­is­ter Ar­lene Foster’s of­fice) to help de­liver the

£55m+ in­flux an Open can pro­vide. On Oc­to­ber 20, 2015, it was of­fi­cial; The Open was go­ing to Portrush in 2019 – and, if it was a suc­cess, for at least a cou­ple of other Opens af­ter that. But that’s the thing; get­ting The Open was a great achieve­ment, but it was only the be­gin­ning of the ef­fort.

Now, Ebert’s plans for the course had to be im­ple­mented – and the faith of the R&A re­warded. It has re­sulted in a bit more than the usual bunker restora­tion and new back tee that a course gets prior to host­ing The Open. In­stead, a mam­moth over­haul has seen:

Two brand-new holes cre­ated, by steal­ing ground from the club’s Val­ley course

Los­ing the old 17th and 18th in or­der that their land could house the tented vil­lage

A to­tally new sec­ond green to lengthen the par 5 by 40 yards

The ex­ist­ing 9th, now the 11th, to play as a par 4 of 480 yards, tak­ing the

over­all par to 71

The 10th, now the 12th, stays as a par 5 but has new back tees to the left of the pre­ced­ing green, adding 54 yards

A new back tee for ‘Calamity’, adding 35 yards to the le­gendary par 3 (now the 16th)

Over­all yardage up to 7,337 from 7,143 (yet ac­tu­ally three yards shorter off the whites)

Nine holes with new fair­way bunkers to tighten land­ing zones (al­though it still has only 62; a lot less than at other Open venues, which usu­ally have 100+)

Those who know Portrush will re­alise from that list that the work cen­tred on the cur­rent par 5s – 2nd (length­ened), 9th (now a par 4), 10th (length­ened) and 17th (gone). They were sim­ply too short

by mod­ern stan­dards.

Ebert has painstak­ingly re­searched the his­tory of the links to re­main as true to what Harry Colt en­vis­aged in 1929 as is pos­si­ble. The sec­ond green, for ex­am­ple, re­mained in play when the new one 40 yards back was cre­ated, al­low­ing Ebert and his shapers to “copy” Colt. The only changes to the par 3s – al­ways Colt’s stand-out holes – are the new tee on ‘Calamity’ and a resur­faced 3rd green.

And de­spite the wettest win­ter on record – from the end of Oc­to­ber to the end of Jan­uary they had only THREE dry days – the work is largely fin­ished. It looks mag­nif­i­cent, and it’s hard to pin­point the seams.

Help­ing the new blend with the old (and to fall in line with NI’s en­vi­ron­men­tal agency), they’ve used a very skil­ful and painstak­ing re­cy­cling op­er­a­tion. All fair­ways, greens and even the mar­ram grass rough has been moved from one area of the site to where it was re­quired. Re­mark­ably, the only im­ported turf was for grass paths and tee sur­faces.

How have they done it? Us­ing the skill of ex­pert shaper Mar­cus Terry and a cut­ting disc you’d usu­ally see used on Tar­mac. It at­taches to the end of a dig­ger’s arm and looks like a big pizza slicer. They cut slabs of turf with it into squares about 1.5m2 and nine inches thick. They then swapped the disc for a 5ft bucket with hay forks on it, that al­lowed them to lift up the slabs one by one and trans­port two at a time in a 10-tonne dump truck.

Ev­ery­thing sur­vives; the mar­ram grass, the fes­cue, the wild flow­ers... it just starts grow­ing in its new lo­ca­tion. It was a slow and del­i­cate process, but the seam­less re­sults are clear.

Get­ting the course “right” is only part of the deal, though. The beau­ti­ful un­du­la­tions and enor­mous dunes that make it one of GB&I’s top-five tracks cause se­ri­ous chal­lenges for get­ting thou­sands of peo­ple around it.

For ex­am­ple, while the new holes

en­hance the course and give space for the tented vil­lage, they cre­ated a rout­ing headache, adding a new tee and green at the al­ready busiest point of the course. Even be­fore the new 7th tee and 8th green were cre­ated, there were cross­over points be­tween the 6th and old 7th and the old 8th and 9th.

Now, there are three greens and three sets of tees just yards apart. It will be the point at which to view in 2019 – you’ll never not have some sort of ac­tion to watch – but it would be a lo­gis­ti­cal night­mare in two years’ time, notably in re­gards to get­ting play­ers around.

“There was talk of a bridge, but even just for that week it won’t look good on the land­scape,” re­calls Ebert. “Then I had a eureka mo­ment; we had to put the play­ers through a tun­nel. From a germ of an idea there is now this in­cred­i­ble struc­ture, which is land­scaped all around with rough so it is to­tally in­vis­i­ble.”

Lo­cated at the back of the par-3

6th green, the tun­nel – and it’s a bit more spa­cious than “Great Es­cape” di­men­sions, you could drive a small car through it – will be the play­ers’ pas­sage from the 8th green to the 9th tee and from the 10th green to the 11th tee. When TG was there, the “doors” were be­ing fixed to the three exit points so it is blocked off un­til 2019 (the club thought this un­der­ground hide­away would oth­er­wise be used for par­ties at night!).

What then, about, the play­ers’ prac­tice fa­cil­i­ties? The cur­rent driv­ing range – fine for the Ir­ish Open, but not good enough for an Open – will be used for the spec­ta­tor vil­lage as it en­joys a cen­tral site. So more land was needed and the so­lu­tion again in­volved the club’s other cour­ses. While cre­at­ing three new holes for the Val­ley (two to re­place the pair it lost to the Dun­luce and one to im­prove the fi­nale), those Val­ley changes also im­pinged on the par 3 nine-hole Sk­er­ries so it has been given two new stun­ning short holes. The Open prac­tice tee has been po­si­tioned at the start of the fair­way of the Val­ley’s 4th hole to give an al­most 400-yard long, 90-yard wide range that the R&A be­lieves will be one of best prac­tice fa­cil­i­ties they have. The play­ers will be shut­tled out there from their lounge, likely to be in the main club­house. A brand-new short-game green has also been built on vir­gin ground next to it, and one of Val­ley’s greens will be the prac­tice putting green, be­cause the R&A wants it all to be close to­gether.

R&A of­fi­cials have been vis­it­ing Portrush ev­ery six or seven weeks to check on in­fra­struc­ture plans, ser­vice roads, and to pon­der where the grand­stands will go. Off the course, £500,000 is be­ing spent re­fur­bish­ing the cen­tre of this vi­brant sea­side town, in­clud­ing an up­grade of the train sta­tion that will be a key trans­port link in July 2019.

If the club is on its best be­hav­iour when the Royal & An­cient’s top brass are on site, it was ramped up at least one notch one day last June when Ersk­ine – af­ter many months of charm of­fen­sive – got the Queen and Prince Philip to call in at one of her “Royal” clubs.

“I got a phone call to go to club­house, so I threw on a suit, and lined up to shake hands,” re­calls head green­keeper Graeme Beatt. “Her

Royal High­ness ac­tu­ally stopped at my­self and our pro Gary O’Neil and asked a few ques­tions about how the golf course was com­ing along for The Open, and the work that was go­ing on. She was very well in­formed!”

Look­ing at it from a wider per­spec­tive, the Queen’s visit and The Open’s im­mi­nent ar­rival show how far North­ern Ire­land has come from the ’70s and

’80s. As Ersk­ine notes, no-one wanted to come to the coun­try at all back then, never mind to play golf. In two years’ time, the world’s very best golfers will all be thrilled to be there, when all the plan­ning and all the work will stop, and the golf will start.

It fits right in A view of the green of the new 572-yard par-5 7th hole.

Made for TV

Portrush will be a truly dra­matic Open venue.

Tun­nel vi­sion The hid­den pas­sage built to get play­ers be­tween crowds.

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