Bushmills venture forges links to Northern possibilities
A £100m resort project on the Antrim coast is generating excitement, writes Dermot Gilleece
When asked in the early years whether Mount Juliet was becoming solidly established on the Irish golf scene, owner Tim Mahony replied: "If you write off my investment here, the place is doing fine." This is the basis on which a new £100m venture in Northern Ireland can have a very bright future.
The Bushmills Dunes Golf Resort and Spa, which received planning permission from Stormont last week, has raised a few eyebrows among the golfing cognoscenti, not least because of the recent history of such ventures. In fact, the Lough Erne development outside Enniskillen, with a far more modest budget of £38m, has hit trouble with its bankers.
But the Bushmills project promises to be different, not least because of its prime mover, Alistair Hanna, a 67-year-old native of Holywood, Co Down, who resides in New York. Indications are that he has pockets comparable in depth to those of Mahony who, as it happened, turned Mount Juliet into a highly profitable venture.
By comparison, other developments currently in receivership failed because of a quite foolhardy dependence on real estate. They became expensive showcases for vain developers who saw no end to the property boom.
"The collapse of the property market, both nationally and internationally, hit the very element which made these projects appear viable in the first place," said Ian McCarthy, managing director of Sherry Fitzgerald Countrywide. "In other words, the source which was intended to pay back the banks simply disappeared."
In the wake of these collapses, however, McCarthy made an interesting discovery. When the debt is set to one side, parked as he put it, the receiver simply runs the place as a going concern. And despite being built to the highest specifications, these facilities can still be operated efficiently.
"With bank debt, success for Bushmills Dunes would be questionable, at best," added McCarthy. "Assuming the developer has done his due diligence and his residual valuation, however, I believe it can be perfectly viable. While he will be investing a hell of a lot of money, some of the construction costs can be offset by the sale of houses."
He pointed out that Donald Trump was adopting a similar approach to his Scottish golf development near Aberdeen. "Whatever about the long-term effects of the property collapse, golf remains a huge international sport and big business," said McCarthy. "And there has to be a pay-off for a course in a prime location on the Antrim coast, given the recent successes of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke. There's no lack of interest in the game."
The developer Hanna has a 125-year lease on 356 acres along the Whitepark Road and Causeway Road to the north of Bushmills and to the east of Portballintrae. Planning permission has been granted for a golf resort to include an 18-hole links of championship standard, clubhouse, golf academy, 120-bedroom hotel incorporating conference facilities and spa, and 75 guest suites/lodges.
Planning, which was first sought in 2001 and again six years later, has had to overcome considerable opposition from the National Trust, owners of the Giant's Causeway, nearby. An opening date in 2014 has been indicated and the architect will be David McLay Kidd who gained an international profile through his design of Bandon Dunes in Oregon.
He has since been responsible for the West Course at Powerscourt where images remain vivid for me of his powerful, athletic whacks with the driver while his kilt flapped in the wind. On which point, one imagines the undulations on the windswept greens at Bushmills being a lot less severe than those at the Wicklow venue, which seriously test the members' putting skills.
Meanwhile, the proximity of the development to Portrush is sparking further optimism among locals about a long-awaited return of the Open Championship to the Dunluce Links. Though the hotel bedrooms would certainly help, I'm afraid that's probably as far as it goes.
Implicit in Northern aspirations is the assumption that the R and A would actually welcome the opportunity of increasing the number of venues on the Open rota. This was undoubtedly true 20 years ago, when the rota was reduced to seven -- St Andrews, Muirfield, Royal Troon and Turnberry in Scotland, and Royal Lytham, Royal Birkdale and Royal St George's in England.
Crucially, Hoylake and Carnoustie dropped off the rota and in the search for replacements, there was even a suggestion that the R and A would look outside the UK by considering Portmarnock, which played host to the British Amateur in 1949 and the Walker Cup in 1991.
Indeed, another R and A event, the St Andrews Trophy, will return there at the end of August.
Gradually, however, a perceived problem began to resolve itself, firstly by a decision to stage the Open over the Old Course at St Andrews every five years, starting in 1990. Then, after a brief trial period as host to the Scottish Open, Carnoustie returned to the rota for the 1999 Open, with greatly enhanced hotel accommodation. This was followed in 2006 by Hoylake's restoration to the Open fold after a lapse of 39 years.
And despite certain concerns regarding the limited space surrounding the links, it proved to be a memorable staging, not least for the double by Tiger Woods, who repeated his previous year's victory over the Old Course. So we now had nine courses on the rota -- five in Scotland and four in England -- with eight available for the four Opens in between those at St Andrews.
Universally admired as a magnificent second-shot test, Portrush could offer a wonderful Open challenge. Sadly from an Irish standpoint, however, this represents only part of the requirement. And even locals acknowledge it would be a nightmare as things stand getting Open crowds of 40,000 around Dunluce.
So, if links golf is to provide a badly-needed boost to the Northern economy, it looks as if a more likely source is about to emerge to the east, in another iconic setting on the Antrim coast.
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