Royal Portrush flattered and flabbergasted by US PGA talk

Rory McIlroy during the first round of the 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ieGiven their interest in hosting The Open again and the suggestion by PGA of America President Ted Bishop that it might be a great place to start hosting the PGA Championship on foreign soil, Royal Portrush might be forgiven for getting head start on the azaleas, magnolias and white dogwoods. 

To say that the powers at the Co Antrim links mecca were taken by surprise by Bishop’s suggestion on Golf Channel’s Morning Drive that “Royal Portrush would be a great first international major” would be an understatement.

In truth, they were as flabbergasted as Graeme McDowell when they heard the news overnight.

Former US PGA champion Padraig Harrington at Royal Portrush. Photo Jenny Matthews/ like McDowell and Rory McIlroy, who was sounded out on the idea by Bishop earlier this year, they would welcome the return of major championship golf to the north coast with open arms.

“I have to say we were rather surprised also,” said Wilma Erskine, secretary manager at Royal Portrush. “But it’s all good publicity. It’s all rather splendid.”

Former captain Philip Tweedie, a member of the club’s tournament committee that is busy preparing for next June’s British Amateur Championship, revealed that the club has had no contact of any kind with the PGA of America.

“It’s a wonderful compliment but a big surprise to hear our name the first to be mentioned,” Mr Tweedie said. “We have to believe that we are held in high esteem to hear our name mentioned at such an early stage.”

Royal Portrush staged the most successful Irish Open in history in 2012 and hopes that the R&A might one day stage The Open Championship at the course where Max Faulkner claimed the only Open held outside Great Britain in 1951.

“Hosting The Irish Open in 2012 was a huge positive and proved that we can run a large tournament and get spectators around the course,” Mr Tweedie added. 

“In relation to the R&A and The Open, they have not at any point said that we won’t get it back but we have very much stood back and let them get on with their own investigations into what they might do.  

“We are hosting the British Amateur next year and therefore there is a lot of communication with the R&A in regard to that event but in relation to The Open, we are leaving that to the R&A. 

“We’d welcome the PGA of America, of course. We keep the view that we are the jewel in the crown in terms of the course, which is important to the whole of Ireland. We look at events like this and embrace whatever might come to help Royal Portrush and the country. If we are offered the US PGA, we will take it. 

“Padraig Harrington is a US PGA winner and an honorary member of Royal Portrush, which he says is one of his favourite courses. Certainly guys like Padraig, Rory, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell have done the world of good in lifting the profile of Irish golf.   

“Graeme said it was a surprise to him but he’d welcome a big event like that coming to his home town. It is massive in America and you can understand them wanting to spread it far afield. The US PGA might not be a name that would be as well known as The Open, but I think it would be just as good.

“It would be another step in the right direction. We have heard nothing from the PGA of America. The tournament committee here at the club hasn’t had a chance to discuss what we might do in terms of moving forward but it is certainly something that you wouldn’t dismiss.

“With the position that Ted Bishop holds, we can’t just ignore it completely.”

The PGA of America confirmed last month that a committee is studying the impact of holding the event around the world, with the earliest possible date in 2020.

Graeme McDowell plays the fifth at Royal Portrush. Photo Jenny Matthews/www.golffile.ieMr Bishop mentioned Royal Portrush as a potential overseas venue when asked about it in the Golf Channel interview on Thursday,

“Royal Portrush would be a great first international major,” Mr Bishop said. “I think given the powerful effect that Irish golfers have on the professional game today, that might be a good place to start.”

Stunned to hear Royal Portrush mentioned as possible venue, McDowell said in Dubai: “It’s always been a dream of mine to play the Open there but the US PGA would do nicely.

“It’s very bizarre and an amazing statement. I couldn’t believe it and read it three times. I had heard the US PGA was looking at going global, which is a very positive step forward, but I was expecting Asia, not the north coast of Ireland.

McIlroy, who won the US PGA in 2012, confirmed that he had already been sounded out by the PGA of America’s President about taking the event to Ireland.

“I spoke to Ted about it,” said McIlroy, who shot a course record 61 around the Dunluce Links as a 16 year old. “He did not mention Portrush, just Ireland, but he has always liked Ireland as a venue.

“It’s a long way down the road, maybe ten years or so, but I would love to play a major championship at home.

“They (the PGA of America) are very forward-thinking and want to think outside the box. It’s something the other majors have not done, they can’t really go elsewhere. I think it’s a good thing. It would be great to see.

“It would be huge. The Irish Open had a huge impact and everyone saw how well it was supported. 

“Asia is the fastest growing region of the world in people playing the game and China are trying to produce the next Olympic champion so maybe down the line that will also be an option.”

Big crowds turned out to see Ireland’s major winners and former US PGA champions such as John Daly and Keegan Bradley at Royal Portrush in pro-am (above) at the 2012 Irish Open. Photo Jenny Matthews/www.golffile.ieIt has been suggested that Ted Bishop is merely trying to irritate R&A Chief Executive Peter Dawson. The pair have been at loggerheads of the ban on anchored putters, leading to an exchange of words under the oak tree at Augusta National earlier this year.

Conspiracy theorists will also take much glee in the fact that PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, another who initially defied the R&A on anchored putters, was seen munching a packet of crisps on a trip to Royal Portrush the week before The Open this year.

Earlier this year, the PGA Tour was forced to deny a stories that were planning a takeover of the European Tour and even planned to to host a tour event on the links at Ballyliffin Golf Club in Co Donegal. 

Given McIlroy’s comments, it seems that nothing can be ruled out, except the azaleas in April.