Portrush's Open dream becomes reality in 2019
Published 21/10/2015 | 02:30
Darren Clarke often dreamed of 'this one for the Open' when he practised his putting at Royal Portrush in his youth, but he never dared to imagine that the Open Championship would be played at his home club in his lifetime.
Well, it will. July 18-21, 2019 are the dates, Royal Portrush is the venue, and the best players in the world will play for the Claret Jug at the renowned Dunluce Links.
This will be the 148th presentation of the Open, and only the second time the Championship will have been played outside England and Scotland since its inception in 1860.
The first - and only time up to now - was 1951 at Portrush where Max Faulkner won the Open.
History-laden, tradition-laden, there is nothing in golf to match the contest for the Claret Jug, and even Clarke had to pinch himself to realise that the official announcement at Royal Portrush yesterday brought to an end phase one of a lengthy process.
Golf, and sport in general, has traditionally brought glamour and glory to Northern Ireland, even through the Troubles that blighted the Province since the late 1960s.
Athlete Mary Peters' gold medal at Munich in 1972; George Best, one of the greatest footballers in history; Barry McGuigan and those epic nights at the King's Hall before the Clones Cyclone won the World featherweight title; Olympic boxing medal winners Wayne McCullough and Paddy Barnes - all heroes and heroines of the North.
And then came golfers Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy to claim their place in the pantheon of Major champions.
With Northern Ireland, a small part of a small island, punching so far above its weight that it's no wonder that the idea of the Open coming back seemed to be an impossible dream. Darren Clarke put it all in perspective.
"I knew it had been here at Royal Portrush before. I played a lot of my golf here and I lived here and I was a proud member here.
"Did I think we would get through the dark times that Northern Ireland has had to get the biggest and best tournament in the world? I'd be very foolish to say yes.
"Nobody could foresee that coming about during the bad old days, but to see how far we have all come, how far we have moved this part of the country on, it has been brilliant," he said.
The status of Clarke, McDowell and McIlroy which soared once they began bagging Major titles all within a short time span of each other, has been central to the process that led up to the R&A decision, but Clarke also hailed Pádraig Harrington.
Harrington's Open win in 2007 smashed the Major hoodoo that had blighted successive generations of Irish golfers since Fred Daly won at Hoylake in 1947, and removed any remaining psychological barriers for his peers.
"Overall, all the impetus wasn't started by G-Mac or Rory. It was started by Pádraig winning three Majors in a very short period of time and we all followed him.
"People give Rory, G-Mac and myself a lot of credit, but I think Pádraig deserves an awful lot of credit for it as well," said Clarke.
Golfers plying their trade on the fairways was one thing; bringing courage, vision, and, above all, money to the table to make an Open Championship possible required different contributions from various sectors.
Clarke hailed four people as having a significant role: George O'Grady, former chief executive of the European Tour, Arlene Foster, Acting First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, Wilma Erskine, the secretary-manager of Royal Portrush, and Peter Dawson, the former chief executive of the R&A.
Tourism NI and Fáilte Ireland played their part in the negotiations which brought the Irish Open North in 2012 to Portrush, and again this year at Royal County Down.
That 2012 event showcased the potential for bringing the British Open to the North, and it did no harm that Clarke, McIlroy, McDowell and Harrington regularly voiced their support for a bold move by the R&A.
Much work remains to be done on infrastructure and it will be challenging for the organisers to cope with the record crowds that will flock to Portrush.
But with a potential €70 million value to the area and the wider community predicted from staging the Open, plus the worldwide tourism exposure, all parties, including the politicians, have every incentive to make this a successful venture.