PUT THE PORTRUSH OPEN ON YOUR BUCKET LIST
Golfers around the world aspire to attend one of the four majors.The Masters is usually the favourite. But, getting a badge for Augusta National is difficult, and if you’re lucky enough to obtain one, it comes with a hefty price tag.
For anyone seeking to experience the special qualities of a major, a good one to attend would be the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush GC in Northern Ireland in 2019. It will be a rarity among majors in that the Open is returning to this part of the UK for the first time in 68 years. Since it was last there in 1951 (Bobby Locke was the defending champion), the majors have only been played in the US, Scotland and England.
The R&A have long observed a strict rota of links courses for the Open – five in Scotland and four in England – so there was really no need to add another. But Royal Portrush is such a fabled championship links that it didn’t take much persuading for The R&A to reconsider the logistics of hosting an Open there, and then agree to it when their demands were met.The success of Irish golfers Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy in winning the claret jug must have influenced their much-lauded decision.
McIlroy holds the Portrush course record, a remarkable 61 at age 16 in 2005, with a back nine of 28, in the North of Ireland Amateur. Portrush is a small seaside resort, where golf has been an attraction for more than a century, and I was fortunate to be there on the eve of the recent Irish Open at nearby Portstewart. My visit coincided with the opening of two spectacular new holes on Royal Portrush’s Dunluce Links. One of the conditions of taking the Open back to NI was that the club had to agree to the elimination of the two bland finishing holes, 17 and 18, which had served the club well for many decades.The old 16th is now the 18th; sadly you can’t see the green from the clubhouse.
These two holes and their surround- ings will be bulldozed flat to accommodate the vast tented facilities the modern Open requires.This drastic measure will secure Royal Portrush’s permanent position on the Open rota.Tourism NI believes that having an Open course will grow revenue from golf tourism from £32 million to £50 million by 2020. Having the Irish Open at Portstewart, a links as dramatic in appearance as Portrush, was the first step in showcasing golf on the Causeway Coast to a global audience. Portstewart did some bulldozing of their own to get this European Tour event, flattening their old clubhouse, and building a new enormous edifice.The NI government played its part by constructing new roads, and you can now reach Portrush from Belfast in 90 minutes. It’s three hours from Dublin.With a train station at Portrush, big crowds can be expected at the Open.
A visitor green fee at Royal Portrush is R3 200 (£190), and the fourballs of American and Japanese tourists roll out every day in summer. It’s a friendly club. The starter informed me there had been 87 applications that day for caddies.The club only has 60 caddies to call upon, so nearly half were doing double shifts, morning and afternoon. It’s all feeding the local economy.
Royal Portrush will be an exciting addition to the Open rota, because it is a visually thrilling links at which to play and view golf.The rugged, undulating terrain is the challenge, so the course only has 62 bunkers, fewer than any other links on the rota.The two new holes at the far end of the course, Nos 7 and 8, have been built amidst giant dunes on part of the neighbouring Valley Links.This is where Graeme McDowell honed his golfing skills as a member of Rathmore GC, a working man’s club.