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.