Royal Portrush and the impossible dream of The Open

When the R&A announced that the 1951 Open Championship was going to Royal Portrush, The Irish Times carried a two paragraph brief on its sports pages on 24 November 1949.

“Portrush to house Golf ‘Open’” ran the headline on an 82-word story that began: “The amateur golf championship will be held at Royal Portcawl (Glam.) during the week beginning May 21st, 1951. The open championship is to be played at Royal Portrush, Co Antrim, from July 3rd 1951.”

Times have certainly changed in the media world since then and so too has The Open, which Darren Clarke likes to remind us, is now “the biggest and best tournament in the world.”

The news that the European Tour has decided to take the Irish Open to the world famous Dunluce links from June 28 to July 1 this summer has been met with unbridled enthusiasm by many in the game

Yet while many experts in golf believe that bringing The Open itself to the north Antrim coast is an impossible dream due to commercial demands, lack of infrastructure and its clash with the traditional “marching season”, only the brave would rule it out completely given the golfing miracles performed by golfers from Northern Ireland over the past two years.

Back to back US Open victories by Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy and Clarke’s fairytale Open victory at Royal St George’s last July would have been thought almost impossible just a few years ago.

Clarke certainly refuses to believe that hosting the Open at Royal Portrush for a second time is an impossible dream and he knows that this year’s Irish Open is a glorious opportunity to prove that to the R&A.

“It would be nice to think that but first things first,” he said. “Let’s take little steps and try and make sure that everyone involved - players, European Tour, Royal Portrush - make this as successful an event as they possibly can and hopefully the R&A will look upon it favourably and take another little step down that road of trying to get The Open.

“There’s other courses that we play on The Open rota where the infrastructure is equal to or maybe not quite as good as here. The course is certainly tough enough, logistically it is just a little bit tougher to get people around the golf course but these are issues that they are trying to address and hopefully they will be able to come to a solution which will please everybody.”

The possibility of hosting the Open at Royal Portrush was raised with the R&A on the Monday following the 2009 championship at Turnberry, where spectators numbers are traditionally low compared to venues which are nearer to big centres of population.

And the R&A’s then Director of Championships, Portrush man David Hill, made it plain that the Country Antrim club’s chances were slim but not impossible.

“Coming from Royal Portrush, I have to be very careful what I say here. I think the one thing I would say is you should never say never.

“Turnberry is a great demonstration of a wonderful golf course in classic links condition with about 25,000 spectators a day.

“It’s taken us a few years to get the infrastructure in place but we have made it to work and I know the championship committee do like to go to new venues.

“The huge media income we have now enables us to come to Turnberry. About 10, 15 years ago, we had to go to venues where we were attracting 200,000 people a week because the income was so important to us.

“But now with new media income, it does give us the opportunity to look at other venues. Unfortunately, the infrastructure at most of the other venues that we might wish to consider is probably not quite there at this moment in time.

“It’s no longer the case that we have to go to venues which attract 50,000 people a day. But equally I certainly wouldn’t want to recommend we go to venues which are all ticket 25,000 people a day, because that just leads to the type of crowd that I don’t think the golf wants.”

Northern Ireland has never hosted a European Tour event yet given the success of other events in recent years, such as the Senior Open, the Walker Cup or even the Lough Erne Challenge, there is a huge hunger for the game.

Sell-out crowds watching some of the best golfers in the world on one of the planet’s great courses will make for superb television.

And if the European Tour can overcome the logistical problems associated with moving thousands of spectators around difficult terrain, the R&A might just take a closer look at bringing the Open across the Irish Sea.

Michael Hoey can see it in his mind’s eye already: “The atmosphere is going to be awesome. I am just picturing Calamity Corner with a bank of spectators on the left hand side. What a hole and what an atmosphere that is going to be! I’m looking forward to it already.”