The Open may never be played at Royal Portrush again but don’t think the course is a pushover just because Welshman Jamie Donaldson shot 18 under par to win the Irish Open by four strokes.
Friendly pin positions, foward tees, pudding soft greens and moderate winds turned the hugely successful event into a shootout, especially on Sunday.
Portrush native Alan Dunbar still missed the cut on his home course though there were mitigating circumstances considering his epic journey to victory in the Amateur Championship at Royal Troon the previous week.
Even without what R&A Chief Executive Peter Dawson described as the Open treatment - new bunkers, new tees etc - Dunbar and Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup captain Nigel Edwards believe it could have presented a far tougher test two weeks ago.
“When I played it I thought Portrush was a good test,” Edwards said last week. “It tests every aspect of your game. Looking at the scoring and the weather, it was a lot softer than the R&A generally set up Open championship venues.
“My mate [Donaldson] winning it at 18 under par, I wouldn’t have thought 18 under was possible but for those guys it obviously is. Maybe that’s why i never considered turning pro shooting 18 under around there.”
When it was pointed out to Edwards that not only were greens soft but greenside rough was trampled down by spectators situated too close to playing areas, he smiled and said: “The pros have it easy, don’t they?”
Dunbar shot rounds of 71 and 78 to miss the two under par cut comfortably. But he still felt the course could have played a lot tougher.
“The greens were soft and we were off some of the forward tees,” Dunbar said. “The flag positions were easy every day so the boys were going to eat it. If you set it up easy they are going to shoot under par.”
Padraig Harrington conceded that the 475-yard ninth and 478-yard 10th would probably play as long-par fours in an Open Championship, making the Dunluce a terrifying par 70. Add in some new bunkers and tees, a stiff breeze, some firm greens and the occasional tricky pin position and the chances of seeing an 18 under par total look remote in the extreme.
“Definitely 9 is a four,” Dunbar said, “maybe not so much 10 because of the tee shot you have to hit. It is a three shotter if you can’t hit driver. I thought the flags were generous every day. When we played the [Irish Amateur] Close there this year, the flags we got were harder than they got all week at the Irish Open.
“Nine and 10 had easy flags every day. So for easy par fives you think they would have tough flags but nine was at the back of the green every day and didn’t bring the front into play. Ten was up the back every day so they didn’t have a front right or front left. So people are going to make birdies.”
Dunbar’s hopes of making the cut were dashed when he took an eight at the 10th on Friday. But as Edwards said, he’s played far tougher set ups on the amateur circuit over the years.
“The way they set up amateur tournaments is the most severe test,” the Welshman said. “Back tees, if they could put us off the upslope just hanging off the back, they would. If you start tucking pins away, it is reflected in the scoring. Even just moving three pins.”
Financial considerations may scupper Portrush’s return to the Open rota but with the event unlikely to return for another 10 years, political worries may just have abated by then in the post Good Friday Agreement era.
As Harrington said when referring to the Orange parades held in mid-July: “It’s an awkward date but we’re bigger than that now.”