Padraig Harrington believes Royal Portrush is ready to host the Open again in “five or six years’ time.” And as an official ambassador for the organisers, the R&A, his endorsement could be worth its weight in gold.
The blazers at St Andrews insist they will be watching this week’s Irish Open like hawks to see how it Portrush copes with massive crowds and a top class field.
And while Harrington believes it would be unfair to judge the Dunluce Links or Portrush itself on just one event, he’s confident it will pass with flying colours after describing the decision to bring the Irish Open back to Northern Ireand as “inspired” and something that will lead to “other Irish Opens and more things down the road.”
Stunned by the thousands who’ve turned out for the practice rounds so far, he said: “The Open here would be just unbelievable.
“I suppose the Open can be played anywhere in the world outside the US, Canada and Mexico and it would be great to play it here, especially on a golf course like this.
“Is it ready for an Open? It IS ready. There is no doubt that the golf course is ready and hopefully the R&A will be watching.
“The golf course, challenge-wise, is close to being an Open Championship golf course but I don’t know about the infrastructure side.
“I’m not into event management in my career yet and I have no idea how the flow of people around the golf course is going to go this week.
“But you need to host a big event to prove yourself but if ever there was a good fore-runner, the R&A would be quite impressed that it’s sold out here.
“They would not be disappointed to have the Open here. They would be guaranteed to sell out.”
With crowds limited to 27,000 a day, Harrington knows that it would come up short of the 35,000 that traditionally pack the courses on the current rota.
But with the Open venues already decided until 2016 and with courses usually given a nine-year window to prepare, the stage could be set for a Portrush return in 2021.
That would come exactly 70 years after Max Faulkner won the 1951 Open at Royal Portrush in the only staging of an event first held 152 years ago.
Joking about his good relationship with R&A boss Peter Dawson, Harrington said: “What’s the next available date? Maybe I have an inside! Maybe I can just go up and talk to them…”
Dawson has already made it clear that the course routing, the massive Open infrastructure and the political situation n Northern Ireland are all potential stumbling block to an Open at Portrush.
But Harrington believes that Ireland has moved forward since the Good Friday agreement and doesn’t believe the traditional 12th of July Marching Season will be the deciding factor.
He said: “We’re bigger than that now. And I had a great time up here as an amateur from around 1990 to 1995.
“I was never nervous about coming up here. As young fellas we just went and played golf. Golfers are harmless, aren’t they.
“The golf course is good enough. Politically, if it hasn’t gone away it’s going away and so shouldn’t really be an issue. So it really is infrastructure and who knows. Let’s hope this week goes swimmingly well.”
Harrington believes that Portrush should be given more than one chance to prove its suitable as an Open venue and while the Irish Open returns to Carton House next year, he’s hoping the Irish Open returns.
He said: “They’re allowed to have a few hiccups at their first attempt at it. Any golf course that hosts an event for the first time, when they go back they situate something a little different and it works better.
“So I don’t think they should feel like they’re under pressure to have it perfect this week. They’ve already far exceeded anything they needed to do with it, just with the crowds turning up. They don’t have to prove themselves this week.”
“It’s not a final exam, no. And I don’t think it should be. Everybody else is given a couple of goes to figure out how to get a flow around the golf course.”
The Dubliner played a practice round with US PGA champion Keegan Bradley and couldn’t believe how many autographs and pin flags he had to sign at the first Irish Open staged in Northern Ireland since 1953.
He said: “I’m fascinated this week. I’ve signed so many Irish Open flags.
“I haven’t been at a regular event in my life where I’ve signed that many. They don’t usually produce flags. It’s like a major.
“This is a milestone so they want something. I’ve signed a lot of flags which makes it feel like you’re at a major.”
As for his game, the world No 69 is pleased that he’s going in the right direction after top 10 finishes in the Masters and the US Open.
To win a seventh Ryder Cup cap he knows he must get back into the world’s Top 50 by the end of July so he gets to tee it up in the megabucks WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone.
Calculating that a win or second place this week could see him return to the world’s top 50, Harrington added: “Remember those finishes I used to get criticised for? Those 29 second places, they’re very good for the world rankings!”
Wary of burn-out as he prepares for his seventh start in eight weeks, he said: “I’m long enough in this to realise I don’t need to play more events to keep a run going and it doesn’t matter if the run breaks, that doesn’t mean it’s over.
“If I don’t have a good week this week, that is not stopping me having a good week at the Scottish Open. I do understand the better I play the more rest I get, so it is nice to be playing well because I get to rest.”
Smiling he said: “Rest? Well, we know that’s not going to happen.”