Royal Portrush has been pencilled in for a return to the Open Championship rota in 2019 but in what has been an awkward and politically-sensitive three-handed reel between the R&A, the Northern Ireland Executive and the club, it will be several months at the very least before a definitive date can be announced.
What is certain is that what Darren Clarke likes to call “the biggest and best tournament in the world” returns to a remodelled Dunluce Links, it will present a new image of Northern Ireland to the world.
As First Minister Peter Robinson eloquently put it, after years of "reputational damage", Northern Ireland will get the chance to tell millions around the world, "this is what peace and stability looks like.”
SHOWCASING NORTHERN IRELAND AND IRELAND TO THE WORLD POST 'TROUBLES'
“These men wouldn’t have dreamed of coming here 20 years ago,” Mr Robinson said of the R&A. “This is a new Northern Ireland, the confident Northern Ireland in the new era and it provides people with a view of what normality looks like....
"The one thing that we have proved in Northern Ireland is that we can handle big events. We did it with the G8, which turned out to be the most peaceful G8 we have ever had. We did it for the World Police and Fire games, which turned out to be the friendliest that they had ever had, we did it for the Giro d’Italia Gran Partenza, which the organisers declared to be the best they had ever had. And if we can get the most peaceful and the best and one of the real festivals of sport for Royal Portrush, whenever it comes here, I think we will all regard that as a considerable achievement and of benefit to Northern Ireland."
Peter Dawson, Chief Executive of the R&A, went out of his way assuage fears about hosting The Open at the height of the July marching season, something that was long regarded as the biggest obstacle to Royal Portrush alongside the huge costs involved.
“As the first minister has said, the political situation here has caused some reputational damage,” Mr Dawson explained, “I think everyone knows that, but we are very happy that that is in the past… If we thought there was a security problem here we wouldn’t be making this announcement.”
The announcement was the fruit, not of months, but of years of negotiations between the three interested parties and there are still several I’s to be dotted and T’s to be crossed before a date can be set.
However, Mr Dawson admitted that two things tipped the balance in favour of returning to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951 — the sell out 2012 Irish Open and the planned course changes.
“One was the success of the Irish Open and the evident strength of the fan base for golf in Ireland and secondly it was the day with Martin Ebert, the architect here, that we finally thought, ‘This is how we can do this’,” he said. “Those were the tipping points for me from a golf perspective and an event perspective.”
The performances of Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, not to mention Pádraig Harrington, also had a role to play though the R&A chief played down their lobbying.
"I don’t think their badgering had any great influence although we did have the craic about it several times," he said with a grin. "I think their performances on the golf course and the staging of the Irish Open here was something of an eye opener in terms of the strength of the fan base fo golf in Northern Ireland and in Ireland altogether and that was certainly part of it as well as the wonderful golf course here and the great support and welcome what we have been receiving from the Northern Ireland Executive. It is a lot of things."
While 2019 is almost, but not quite, a certainty, Mr Dawson explained that much work lies ahead with the planned course enhancements and infrastructure developments requiring ratification by the club’s members and by the planning authorities.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?
“We will not be able to announce a date for the first event until these permissions are in place,” Mr Dawson said. “2019 is the earliest it can be, but it may be that we have to wait a year or two longer than that.
“But of course it is a long time since 1951 and the game has moved on and like all of the other Open venues, we have had to look at the course to ensure that it provides the sort of test that an Open Championship should provide.
“The course can certainly do that with some alterations. Not just from a playing point of view but also because the whole infrastructure surrounding an Open Championship takes up a lot of ground and you have to be able to site that.
“The 18th green here is difficult from a grandstand point of view and all of these things are in the mix. We have been very much helped by Martin Ebert from Mackenzie and Ebert in this, and also the television structure in terms on the TV compounds, contractors compounds, road systems, and so on.
“It is a lot of work to eventually get to the point where you feel you can make an announcement, where you feel that the club subject to its members approval, likes the idea of the whole thing and that the support from the Northern Ireland executive all had to come together.”
What's it all going to cost?
"We will be spending several million pounds in bringing the golf course and the infrastructure up to where we need it for the Open and we are delighted to do so," Mr Dawson said.
The authorities in Northern Ireland will be making their contribution but both First Minister Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness believe it's worth every penny.
"From the Executive’s point of view, obviously the R&A has partners, so the agreement signed between the R&A and the NI Tourist board is commercially in confidence," the First Minister said. "But suffice to say it is in the millions but we expect to get a return that is tenfold, perhaps."
Mr McGuinness added: "I'm not a golfer. I am fly fisherman. I take great pride in the fact that the Open is coming to Northern Ireland. Just recently in a city less than an hour from here we had an event which attracted 430,000 people and there wasn’t one incident during the course of it.
"The changes that have happened at political and security level transformation in recent years have sent a very powerful message to the world and to the R&A about our ability to handle these sort of amazing occasions.
"So I have no doubt whatsoever that the investment we put into this will be supported by the people and that the return will be tenfold way into the distance. I am delighted this event is happening here and that the vast majority to the people, not just in Northern Ireland but in the whole of Ireland, will take great pride in this event. This is gong to be astronomical."
The changes to the course will be extensive but it was the club, not the R&A, who revealed plans for two new holes — a par-five and a par-four — to be built on the land occupied by the fifth and sixth holes in the Valley Course close to the sea.
The Open would then finish on the current 16th green with the current 17th and 18th holes on the Dunluce Links being used for the tented village. The new holes would then incorporated into the current course from the par-three sixth onwards as the new seventh and eighth. Alternatively, they could be slotted into the back nine after the 13th as the new 14th and 15th with the famous par-three, Calamity, becoming the 16th.
Nothing can go ahead without the approval of the members but club captain Simon Rankin does not just want the course changes approved by a simple majority, he wants an overwhelming endorsement from the 500 members expects them to resoundingly approve the changes, which will be paid for by the R&A with the help of an estimated £5-£10 million injection from the Northern Ireland Executive.
With The Open worth an estimated £70m to the region for every staging, the Executive expects to see its investment repaid “tenfold” over the coming decades.
In terms of attendances alone, 20,000 grandstand seats could see close to 40,000 fans a day swarm over the links, making an Open at Royal Portrush a money spinner for the R&A, exceeding venues such as Turnberry.
As for the course, an EGM will be held at the club later this summer to ask the 500 members: “Are you willing to make the changes so that we can have the Open Championship?"
Mr Rankin said: “I expect that to be a resounding yes. Then we have to decide how we want to play the two courses afterwards.
“There is not anybody in this club who doesn't want the Open championship and isn’t willing to make those change to do that. The members then have to decide how they would like it afterwards.
“Everyone knows there are 16 magnificent holes out there and the 17th and 18th, which are good golf holes and would be great holes on any other course, are perhaps not in the same character as the others.
“And so if we can build two new golf holes and whether the members want to play them all the time or some of the time, we will wait and see. People are fully on board.”
The “new” Championship course would measure just over 7,300 yards — more than 100 yards longer than the current course — with the par-five ninth converted to a par-four, giving a par of 71 with lengthening proposed to the current par-five 10th.
“It is really good to have this meeting [today] out of the way and we can now talk about the elephant that has been in the room for a long time,” Mr Rankin said. “We have known about this for a long time and it is great to be able to go back and say to the members, okay this is what is going on.”
THE NEW HOLES
The new holes will be a par-five and a par-four "down by the sea", according to the captain.
"The course will stay down in that iconic area," he said. "They are beautiful golf holes and they will be wonderful holes for championship golf to be played.
"Whether they sit on the front nine or the back nine, that has to be decided. There is a par-five that heads down the valley toward Donegal which doglegs up to the right. And then there is a par four coming back where there is tee shot where you have to decide how much you will bite off and comes back into a current wilderness area and it will be a completely remodelled area.
"This area of the course is just spectacular. It is taking the land those two holes [on the Valley] currently occupy. Theoretically they will be slotted in after the sixth on the front nine or after the 13th on the back nine. The Championship committee have to decide on that. And the members then have to decide if we want those in our playing course or to have our regular layout . That’s a separate question.
There will be several new tees while will bring the overall yardage of the proposed new Dunluce to just over 7,300 yards.
"We are just over 7,200 yards at the moment," said the captain. "Par would be 71 and I understand they would wish the ninth to be a par-four and the reworked 10th (new tee) a par-five. There will be some work on the bunkering but not much."
THE GENESIS - HOW THE R&A, THE CLUB and THE EXECUTIVE
The decision to work to bring The Open back to Royal Portrush has not been arrived at overnight. As Mr Rankin said in his opening statement before the press conference: "The members of Royal Portrush fully realise the magnificence of his golf course and its precious place in the golfing world. It is considered to be a natural masterpiece. The Open Championship was played here in 1951 and we have rested on those laurels for too long."
Later he explained why he believes it is impossible that members will be in any way opposed to the changes but then went on to outline the difficulty in moving ahead and the need for secrecy.
"It is a fantastic opportunity. That’s all I can see, to leave things better than they were before. In the last decade, I have always known about the plans to put two new holes in that location. That has always been circulating in the background. I do not know when Martin Ebert had a lightbulb moment [convincing Dawson]. The R&A have been working with us since well before that point.
"The difficulty for us was how far advanced we were in negotiations. We were very far down the line and it is not something that has happened in the last year. I am delighted we have nothing do do with the financial negotiations. The members will not be asked to pay for those changes.
"The Council [of the club] has already say yes. We had to say yes so the R&A could make an announcement. So we now take it back to the members for an EGM.
"The changes take six months to make and then two years to mature. The difficulty in this triangle is that each member of that triangle has had to be careful not to tread on the toes of the other.
"The R&A has been very respectful of the members. They can’t just come in here and say, 'We were gong to take your course apart.' They are very very concerned with how the members will, in a sense, react to this.
"They can’t overstep their mark and we couldn’t announce it to all the membership . We have to announce it one step at a time. So it is really good to have today's meeting out of the way and we can now talk about the elephant that has been in the room for a long time.
"We have known about this for a long time and it is great to be able to go back and say to the members, okay this is what is going on. The thing I want to emphasise is that as far as the changes that are going to have to be made for the Open Championship, the members are delighted. Really pleased. It is absolutely great news. We will go to them with the EGM later in the summer."
MATURING THE NEW DUNLUCE
"Two years," the captain said. "I am led to believe the fairways and greens are easy and they now have a machine that transplants rough. Rough is what is difficult. It is something were are very attached to here. It will be our rough put back into place."
THE NORTH OF IRELAND AMATEUR — DISRUPTION ON THE HORIZON?
The North of Ireland Amateur Open Championship traditionally overlaps with the Open at some stage, which could mean problems going forward.
"We are very dedicated to the North of Ireland Championship," the captain said. "There will always be 18 championship holes available. The club forefathers are very dedicated to the North of Ireland and are very loathe to having anything taken away. It's too early to say if another venue would have to be considered. That’s for GUI and the Ulster Branch."