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No plans for "Open" talk at Royal Portrush AGM

Where the R&A will find two new holes at Royal Portrush is the subject of much speculation.  Here's one theory with a potential "new" 7th and 8th  in the area near the Valley's 5th and 6th

Open Championship mania has taken hold on the north coast but while there are high hopes that the R&A will bring the world's oldest major to Royal Portrush in 2019, at least part of the club membership is becoming increasingly nervous about the information vacuum.

The club's Annual General Meeting takes place at 6pm this coming Saturday but a potential staging of the Open Championship in little more than five years' time is not on the agenda.

That's disappointing, according to several members I spoke to in recent days. Royal Portrush Golf Club's Council of nine, they say, continues to play their cards very close to their chest.

While Northern Ireland's First Minister, Peter Robinson, felt compelled to reveal recently that talks with the R&A being well beyond the early stages, the members are waiting for some official news and a look at the plans.

However, virtually no information has been given out and no-one has seen any maps or charts of potential changes the golf course.

The latest "news" is that two entirely new holes may be required in the area adjacent to the current fifth and sixth holes on the adjoining Valley Course.

As many have speculated, the par-five 17th and par-four 18th on the Dunluce links could be eliminated from a possible Open layout with the championship ending on the current 16th hole, where there may be more space for a grandstand.

An aerial view of Royal Portrush with the fifth green on the Dunluce Links visible in the bottom left hand corner.

The 17th and 18th could then be used to house the tented village — par will be reduced from 72 to 70 with the 475-yard ninth and 478-yard 10th likely to be reduced from par fives to par fours.

Two "new" holes would then be needed and according to one member, it appears unlikely that the R&A are thinking of incorporating two of the Valley's signature holes into the Open course — the 336-yard, short par four, fifth hole and the 237-yard, par three, sixth  — but instead hope to build two new holes in the sandhills close to that area.

According to one source, a potential seventh hole for the Open could run from left of the current sixth green to the area near the seventh tee on the Valley and from there head back up through the sandhills to the seventh tee on the Dunluce Links.

What appears to be troubling some members, already nervous about any changes to their beloved links, is that they will be presented with a fait accompli.

Whatever plans the R&A and the Council might be hatching, the cost is also likely to be considerable.

The clubs certainly has some cash. Still riding the wave of goodwill worldwide following the 2012 Irish Open bonanza,  green fee income was believed to be in the £900,000 region last year ($1.5 million or €1.09 million.)

A 1930s cigarette card depicting an old layout of the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush. The loss of land comprising the first and eighteenth holes of this layout led to the creation of the present eighth and ninth holes under the guidance of P.G. Stevenson and Sir Anthony Babington in 1946.

That said, Peter Dawson, who is retiring as CEO of the R&A in 2015, has never sounded particularly enthusiastic about the Open going to Royal Portrush,

He has explained several times that huge investment would be required.

"It’s a favourite of mine, wonderful golf course, wonderful challenge," Dawson said at Royal Lytham and St Annes in 2012. "And it’s great to see how successful the Irish Open was and particularly the enthusiasm from the spectators in that part of the world.

"If you were at the Irish Open and compare it with what we’re doing here, we’re talking 20,000 grandstand seats, and there I doubt they had 2,000 at the Irish Open.

"You’re talking about a tented village here I would estimate 10 or more times the size it was at the Irish Open. And the crowd size at the Irish Open, whilst it was very good, was only as good as perhaps the lowest crowd we expect at an Open venue, ie Turnberry.

"Where would you put the big grandstand complex? The practice ground would need a lot of work at Portrush in my own estimation. 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.

"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. We’ll just have to wait and see. 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."

If the Open is to go to Royal Portush in 2019, an announcement would traditionally be made some time next year at the very latest.

From what we hear, it will require raised hands from the floor of the AGM on Saturday for the issue to get a public airing any time soon.

In the meantime, we can look forward at least to visiting Portrush for the (British) Amateur Championship, which will be played over the famous, Harry Colt designed Dunluce Links for the third time in its history (and at nearby Portstewart) from June 16-21.