Friday 24 October 2014

Portrush Open for business? It will be a breath of fresh air

Karl MacGinty

Published 13/05/2014 | 02:30

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland putting on the 18th green during the final round of the 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland putting on the 18th green during the final round of the 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

A story that began as a ripple on Antrim's Causeway Coast grew into a tidal surge when it hit Florida's Ponte Vedra Beach during The Players Championship.

Reports from Sawgrass that "the i's have been dotted and the t's crossed" on a deal to bring the Open Championship to Royal Portrush in 2019 are a perfect example of that fascinating tendency for rumours to grow more solid and weighty the wider they spread.

For sure, exciting times are in the offing for Portrush.

Negotiations with the R&A are at an advanced stage, not only to stage the Open there in five years' time.

Pending the undoubted success of that venture, it's understood the famed Dunluce Links will be added to the official rota of venues for golf's oldest Major.

Which means the British Open will return on a regular basis to Antrim – and certainly a lot more often than once every 68 years!

For the changes which must be made at Portrush to accommodate an event on this vast scale are so great, they'll be permanent.

Meanwhile, all sides in the talks accept that it'll take more than one 'hit' to justify the inconvenience and expense involved.

Still, the source "close to the situation", who last week told authoritative US magazine 'Golfweek' "I believe it's a done deal", was wide of the mark.

THRASHED

Especially when he suggested the only matter to be thrashed out is when the Open will be held at Portrush and how often.

Or claimed an announcement was imminent, nominating next month's (British) Amateur Championship, another R&A showpiece, at Portrush as the likely occasion for that to be revealed.

In reality, before any sweeping changes can be made to the links, they must be approved by the members of Royal Portrush at an Emergency General Meeting.

And an EGM, which requires two weeks' notice, will only be called in the event of an invitation from the Royal and Ancient to host the Open. Negotiations have been wide-ranging, detailed and supposedly have proceeded smoothly, but they've yet to reach that formal stage.

It's quite a liberty to suppose members of Royal Portrush will row in with the proposals without very careful consideration. After all, this represents a crossroads in the club's history.

Changes include the building of two new finishing holes. After 16, the new 17th will sweep into the adjacent Valley Course, with the 18th heading back towards the clubhouse.

Unlike the current closing hole, there'll be enough room around its successor to install the massive grandstands, which are a feature of every Open.

The space left by the current 17th and 18th will be used for extensive corporate areas and the Open Village during the championship and be incorporated into the Valley Course on a permanent basis thereafter.

English architect Martin Ebert, whose firm Mackenzie and Ebert carried out renovations on Turnberry, Sandwich and Lytham and are remodelling Troon for the 2016 Open, is expected to design and build the new holes and conduct any other changes to the links.

Purists inevitably will suggest the Open should be moulded to fit a classic venue like Portrush in the way that the US Open squeezed into tight confines at Merion last summer.

Yet, unlike the massively well-resourced USGA, who could afford to take a financial 'hit' in the name of history at Merion, income generated by The Open is critical to the R&A's worldwide commitment to develop and nurture golf and therefore must be maximised. The transformation of Royal Portrush into an Open venue will come at a price, but will bring massive prestige and the promise of green fee income far in excess of already significant profits stirred by the spectacularly successful 2012 Irish Open.

In return, Portrush will freshen up an Open rota which includes St Andrews, Muirfield, Royal St George's, Royal Lytham, Royal Birkdale, Royal Troon, Carnoustie, Turnberry and this year's venue Royal Liverpool.

Heaven knows, the appearance of this newcomer, and further competition for the eight available places alongside St Andrews in the 10-year Open cycle, may help convince those with dubious membership policies (Muirfield, Sandwich and Troon) that the time has come to make staging the championship on their links less fraught for sponsors like HSBC.

Royal Portrush will soon become an Open venue. Yet however enthusiastic the Northern Ireland Executive is or the R&A may be, only the club's members can formally dot those i's and cross those t's.

Irish Independent

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