The Open Championship: The wait is over as Portrush completes preparations

The clubhouse at Royal Portrush
The clubhouse at Royal Portrush

Press Association golf correspondent Phil Casey on the Open Championship and its return to Royal Portrush after 68 years.


It has been a long time coming, but the wait is finally over.

Sixty eight years after Max Faulkner won the only Open Championship to be staged outside Scotland or England, Royal Portrush will again welcome the world's best golfers to Northern Ireland next week to do battle for the Claret Jug.

Former world number one Rory McIlroy, who was born 60 miles away on the outskirts of Belfast, was among those who never dreamt of being able to play a major championship on home soil.

It was indeed unthinkable for decades due to The Troubles, but the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 helped turn the dream into a possibility and the major-winning exploits of Graeme McDowell, a Portrush native, Darren Clarke and McIlroy himself strengthened the hand of those pushing the venue's case.

By then the course had already staged, after a gap of 33 years, the Amateur Championship, but hosting a professional tournament, let alone a major, was obviously on an entirely different level, which is where the 2012 Irish Open comes in.

It was an astounding success with a sell-out crowd of 112,000, the first ever for a European Tour event, braving miserable weather to watch Jamie Donaldson win his first title, with McIlroy 10th and McDowell 16th.

"It felt like a test, like the R&A was watching us," tournament director Miguel Vidaor told PA. "They were looking to see how the one-way system worked, the park-and-ride, whether the town could cope.

"The atmosphere was amazing with nearly 30,000 people every day and it was a fantastic week."

The R&A were quick to play down expectations, chief executive Peter Dawson praising the course but preaching patience in a press conference ahead of the Open at Royal Lytham two weeks later.

"The practice ground would need a lot of work... and we don't have a finishing hole that would have the grandstands around it. There would be much work to do for an Open to go to Portrush," Dawson said.

"A huge amount of money would need to be spent, in my estimation, to make Royal Portrush a sensible choice. That's not a criticism of Royal Portrush; it's a wonderful golf course, but the commercial aspects of it are quite onerous.

"It's going to take some time to come to a view, and the view may be no. It's always been to an extent on our radar and our Championship Committee will, I'm sure, continue to evaluate it. But don't expect anything imminent, that's for sure."

Dawson was true to his word and it was not until October 2015 that his successor, Martin Slumbers, officially announced that Portrush would stage the 2019 Open, news which had been expected ever since club members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the required course changes the previous August.

The biggest of those changes saw two new holes - the seventh and eighth - created on the Dunluce Links from land on the adjacent Valley Links, with the existing 17th and 18th holes used for the vast tented village and media centre.

"Visually it's spectacular, how they've cut this hole through the dunes, they've made it look as if this hole's been here since the course was built," McIlroy said of the 592-yard par-five seventh.

"The new eighth hole is a fantastic par four, a huge improvement to what was the eighth hole before.

"It's going to be unbelievable. I never thought in my lifetime that I would play an Open Championship at home so it's going to be massive. This has been a tournament that I've earmarked for a long time.

"It would obviously be a dream come true to win an Open Championship here. I'm not going to lie, I've thought about it, I've thought about what it would mean and how special it would be in my career.

"Not a lot of guys get the opportunity to play such big tournaments in front of your local fans, your local people and it's going to be incredible. I can't wait for it."

McIlroy, along with more than 200,000 spectators, need wait no longer.

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