The Open for Northern Ireland? Talks "well past the early stages"
 First Minister Peter Robinson: "I would say we are well past the early stages of discussions. I am prepared to make every effort that I can to bring The Open to Northern Ireland." Picture: Fran Caffrey  www.golffile.ie

First Minister Peter Robinson: "I would say we are well past the early stages of discussions. I am prepared to make every effort that I can to bring The Open to Northern Ireland." Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson revealed yesterday that talks to bring the British Open back to Northern Ireland -  are now "well past the early stages."

Speaking at the announcement of Royal County Down and Lough Erne Resort as the hosts for the Irish Open in 2015 and 2017, Mr Robinson said on The Open: "We are having discussions on that issue. If and when that happens, we will no doubt have another press conference.

“We plan to have at least one great sporting event in Northern Ireland every year — the Giro d’Italia this year, the Irish Open next year and in 2017. It’s the kind of thing we couldn’t have contemplated in the decades that have just past.

"The Open? We have the courses that may meet their requirements. We may have some infrastructure problems to addresss but without betraying any confidences I would say we are well past the early stages of discussions. I am prepared to make every effort that I can to bring The Open to Northern Ireland."

Royal Portrush is the front runner to host The Open for the first time since Max Faulkner won there in 1951 with strong rumours that it could get the nod for 2019. 

 European Tour CEO George O'Grady and the Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson, First Minister MLA at the Irish Open 2015 announcement at Royal County Down. Picture: Fran Caffrey  www.golffile.ie

European Tour CEO George O'Grady and the Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson, First Minister MLA at the Irish Open 2015 announcement at Royal County Down. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

But with the Royal and Ancient Golf of St Andrews set to vote on admitting women as members later this year and with all-male clubs like Royal Troon, "Muirfield" and Royal St George's under pressure to change their policy or risk being dropped from the Open rota in the wake of protests from sponsors, the door could open for Royal Portrush and even Royal County Down in the future.

As for the Irish Open, Donald Trump’s Doonbeg could gatecrash the party in 2016 and prevent this year's hosts Fota Island from getting a second bite of the cherry.

The European Tour’s Chief Executive George O’Grady confirmed that while Fota Island Resort are the front runners to host the Irish Open again in 2016, he has spoken with new Doonbeg owner Trump about his plans to rebuild the Co Clare links, which has been rebranded Trump International Golf Links, Ireland.

“We are in a changing world,” O’Grady said at yesterday’s announcement at Royal County Down. “Donald Trump has bought Doonbeg and we are in close contact with him.

“He has a habit of delivering very good golf courses — and it is a good golf course at Doonbeg anyway — but with the investment he’s putting in there, we’ll see how that goes.

“We have already had a chat with him but it is probably too early to have an Irish Open at Doonbeg yet. But by 2016, who knows. Right now, Fota Island is looking the closest.”

Confirming that this year’s Irish Open prize fund will be €2 million with at least that amount at Royal County Down next year, O’Grady said: “We are very enthusiastic on Fota Island at the moment. We have great support down there and the new owners are quite driven to make it a great event.

“They would be the running favourite, I would say. But there is a lot of interest from other clubs too, so it’s a work in progress.

“The prize fund certainly won’t be less than €2m at Royal County Down in 2015 but if we get the same support from some of the companies in the North we got the last time, we will look very strongly at increasing it.”