Portstewart joins list of Irish Open aspirants

Links gem Portstewart has emerged as one of the front runners to host Rory McIlroy and Co when the Irish Open returns to Northern Ireland in 2017 or 2019.

While the European Tour is set to announce that the Palmer Ryder Cup Course at The K Club will host next year’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in what we believe will be a one-year deal, competiton to host future editions of the event is hotting up.

While the Lough Erne Resort in Co Fermanagh was announced 18 months ago by current Acting First Minister Arlene Foster as the venue for 2017, there is doubt in some circles that it will eventually go ahead there following its sale to a group of US investors led by billionaire Chicago financier Michael Saliba for an estimated €11m.

Minister Foster's interest in the area would appear to be a gilt-edged guarantee that it will go ahead at the Faldo Course,

The European Tour did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation that the Lough Erne deal remains in place for 2017. 

Even if it does go ahead in Mrs Foster’s native county in two years’ time, Portstewart Golf Club is keen to bring the Irish Open to the north coast and we understand that the feeling is mutual where Wentworth is concerned. 

Portstewart’s secretary manager, Michael Moss said: “We’d like to do it. Royal Portrush hosted in 2012 — a links course. Royal County Down hosted in 2015 — another links course. The European Tour likes the profile of the inks course for the Irish Open and getting it back to where it should be. 

“So if the Irish Open going to be held on a links in Northern Ireland again, well, the obvious next choice is Portstewart. We could host the Irish Open tomorrow. The course is ready.”

The first at Portstewart — Tubber Patrick — is regarded by many as the finest opening hole in links golf.

Situated just five miles from Portrush and just 30 minutes from Derry city, Portstewart hosted the Ladies’ British Amateur Open in June and one of the two strokeplay qualifying rounds alongside Royal Portrush for last year’s British Amateur Championship.

The club has three courses but it’s the famous Strand Links that’s in line for the Irish Open and it has undergone several enhancements in recent years and now measures 7,054 yards from the back tees with the R&A reducing the par from 72 to 71 for last year's Amateur Championship qualifying rounds

“The lowest score on either course for the British Amateur was 66,” Mr Moss explained. “And the CSS both days at Portrush was 74 and both days here it was 75. I think the players were very pleasantly surprised by the quality and the challenge of the course.”

We understand that Dubai Duty Free has completed its due diligence on its sponsorship of this year’s Irish Open at Royal County Down and is happy to continue at The K Club, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year.

Keeping McIlroy (and Dubai Duty Free) happy is clearly key for the European Tour given that the former world No 1 backs the Irish Open through his Rory Foundation. 

Getting a prime date closer to The Open is key and next year could be challenging with the event likely to be played in mid-May, when the weather could prove a turn off.

Setting up an Irish Open rota of sorts is now on the agenda with Portmarnock Golf Club, despite its difficulty with the "men only" membership issue, a player in the game.

In the unlikely event that Portmarnock's membership agrees to admit women members, a 2018 Irish Open staging there appears impossible, even if there is zero cash invested by Failte Ireland.

But there are other players in the game.

The 11th. Picture via www.portstewartgc.co.uk

Mount Juliet's owners Tetrarch Capital have invested €1.1m in new machinery and buggies at the Jack Nicklaus designed course this year with an extensive renovation of the existing clubhouse and a new members’ clubhouse is also planned,

With Limerick businessman JP McManus closing Adare Manor for major, multi-million euro course renovations for the next year (the hotel will be closed for even longer), there is clearly hot competition to host the Irish Open when it returns south in 2018.

Mount Juliet, which hosted the Irish Open from 1993 to 1995 and saw Tiger Woods and Ernie Els win the WGC American Express Championship in 2002 and 2004, was announced yesterday as the latest member of the European Tour Properties network.

European Tour Chief Executive, Keith Pelley said: “The calibre of champions who have won at Mount Juliet underlines the quality of this magnificent venue. 

"The European Tour’s relationship with Mount Juliet stretches back more than two decades and we now enter into an exciting new phase with this collaboration within the European Tour Properties network.”

European Tour player Kevin Phelan from Waterford was also officially announced this week as Mount Juliet’s touring professional.