Sport Golf

Monday 24 October 2016

Open benefit will flow for generations

Dermot Gilleece

Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30

Padraig Harrington was one of those who helped bring the 2019 Open to Ireland
Padraig Harrington was one of those who helped bring the 2019 Open to Ireland

With rivals in the industry currently pushing hard to lift golf tourism on this island beyond former levels, Wilma Erskine permitted herself a quiet, self-satisfied smile. "My marketing budget has now been reduced to zero," the secretary/manager of Royal Portrush remarked in rather special circumstances last week.

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Big sport generates big money, and the Co Antrim links won't have to wait until 2019 to cash in on the return of the Open Championship to their Dunluce stretch. The very idea of such status is enough to send pulses racing among peripatetic golfers worldwide.

Apart from contributing more than €100m to the local economy, the Open will secure the club's future for the next generation, according to its captain, Sir Richard McLaughlin. "Even in the depths of the Troubles, the 1951 Open continued to bring people here," he said. "And there's no doubt that the Irish Open became a complete turning point in getting it back."

The international impact of last Tuesday's announcement was evident close at hand. In the clubhouse foyer, I met a certain Daniel O'Connell from Kanturk, who emigrated to the US 28 years ago and was back here as general manager of the Charles River Country Club outside Boston. More importantly from a Portrush perspective, 51 of his club's members were out enjoying the links.

"It was a great surprise to be here on such an historic day," said O'Connell, who can trace his bloodline back to his name-sake, the famed Emancipator. "I've already posted it on Instagram and Facebook and I imagine it will cause quite a stir back in the US."

No decision has yet been taken regarding the 2019 North of Ireland Amateur Championship, which has been ever-present at Portrush since its launch in 1947. Indications are that it will go to neighbouring Portstewart, with Castlerock being used as a qualifying course, not unlike the way the 'West' moved temporarily from Rosses Point to Enniscrone in 1997.

Meanwhile, the importance of the 2012 Irish Open and its record-breaking attendances cannot be overstated. It was all there in an interview which Peter Dawson, the recently-retired chief executive of the R and A, gave to Scotland on Sunday in January 2012. "We will be very interested to see how the course copes commercially and in terms of spectator movement when the Irish Open is held there later this year," he said. "So we are taking it seriously."

O'Connell's American contingent had reached the short sixth when I joined Martin Ebert, the architect entrusted with upgrading the course, including the design of two new holes to replace the present 17th and 18th which will be giving way to Open infrastructure, four years hence. A new seventh and eighth will take in elements of the adjoining Valley course, so facilitating a finish on the existing 16th which becomes a suitably testing, 465-yard par-four.

Halfway up the right side of the sixth is the tee for a new par-five seventh of 572 yards. And a highlight will be a replica in scale and shape of the iconic, Big Nellie bunker from the existing 17th, generated by computer.

The 435-yard eighth returns to a green about 25 yards back right of the existing sixth green. As we observed a mechanical digger giving it shape, Ebert explained that it would be sodded rather than seeded before the end of this year. Fairways for both holes should be completed by next February and all will be over-seeded with fescue in April.

If everything goes to plan, the entire course on which the bunker-count is to be increased by three to 62, will be ready for play in spring 2017, before being groomed to championship standard by 2018, well in time for the Open.

Acknowledging this assignment as a considerable feather in his designing cap, Ebert said: "It is hard to argue against this being the finest piece of linksland on which the Open Championship is played. No other venue, in my view, has such pure links undulations through its 18 holes. And the great skill of the original designer, Harry Colt, was as a master in traversing such difficult terrain to bring the best out of it."

Darren Clarke, who badgered the R and A relentlessly in pursuit of this prize, had the somewhat dispiriting start of a nine at the first on his competitive debut there as a 15-year-old. "I would consider it tighter than most of the other Open courses," he said. "Stand on the ninth tee out there and you've got to hit the fairway, which is a big ask. It is simply a very demanding course which Martin Ebert is making better, rather than tougher."

On a memorable Tuesday in July 2005, Rory McIlroy needed to par the 16th and 17th holes for a course-record 63 in the second qualifying round of the 'North'. From the very back tees of a course measuring 7,134 yards, he responded to the challenge with two birdies for a stunning 61, two months past his 16th birthday.

His prospects of a repeat performance on an extended layout of 7,337 yards? "It would need to be a very good 61," said Clarke with feeling.

Many individuals, including Pádraig Harrington, did much to make 2019 possible, but the real, unsung heroes were the throngs of spectators with classic Northern resolve, who braved cruelly hostile Irish Open conditions in 2012.

This is their reward, and they richly deserve it.

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