Thursday 22 February 2018

Donaldson not the only winner as magnificent venue enhances its bid to host Major championship

Jamie Donaldson, Wales, proudly displays the Irish Open trophy
Jamie Donaldson, Wales, proudly displays the Irish Open trophy

Karl MacGinty

WITH respect to Jamie Donaldson and the meteoric final-round 66 that sealed his maiden victory on the European Tour, the 2012 Irish Open will forever be remembered for the multitude of welcomes provided by the people of Portrush, Northern Ireland and, indeed, this island as a whole.

Never before in the history of European golf have so many spectators attended a regular Tour eve, yet there was nothing remotely "regular" about this festival of golf at Royal Portrush.

With their good nature, noisy enthusiasm and wonderful perseverance in the face of truly miserable weather conditions, the vast attendance at the Irish Open sent one loud and clear message to the Royal and Ancient.

They brilliantly stated the case for the fitness of Portrush and Northern Ireland's Causeway Coast to host the British Open for the first time since 1951.

Resounding

As local man Graeme McDowell, his chest almost swelling with pride, reflected yesterday evening: "This course is a great British Open test. I would love, love in my heart, to see the British Open come back here. There are so many variables involved in putting the Open championship together and all we can do is put our chips in the middle of the table and say 'we're all in'.

"I feel like we can handle it now and I think we have proven our case," added the 2010 US Open champion, explaining that the Dunluce Links "had a resounding, successful reaction from all the players this week. They've loved it.

"Yes, it was a little slow because of the weather. But get it firm and fast, get the rough up, and it's as good a test as there is in golf," added McDowell.

Frankly, the R&A never had any doubt about the golfing credentials of the course. Yet many of the questions asked about the ability to handle the vast logistics of golf's oldest and biggest Major were answered in resounding fashion during the Irish Open.

In just six months, the European Tour were able to prepare the facility sufficiently to accommodate in comfort crowds in excess of 30,000 on Saturday and Sunday.

With a likely lead-in of up to nine years to prepare the infrastructure on this site and the surrounding area, it is almost certain that the extra 15,000-or-so spectators expected at The Open could be handled.

Traffic management, park-and-ride schemes and other plans put in place by the European Tour in co-operation with the local authorities and the Northern Ireland Executive operated without a hitch throughout the tournament.

As a dress rehearsal hopefully for bigger events to come, it hardly could have gone better. No longer can the R&A safely bat away suggestions of the Open being played at Portrush with vague reference to logistics.

Now they'll need to come up with hard and fast reasons why the Open Championship should not visit one of the most passionate hotbeds of golf in the United Kingdom. The record 112,280 who attended the four days of the tournament was 17,000 greater than that at the European Tour's showpiece BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last month, an astonishing statistic when one considers the vast population of London.

"They've been so successful here at Portrush this week, they don't necessarily have to come back and prove anything," said Padraig Harrington.

So bowled over was the two-times Open champion by the atmosphere yesterday, he even dwelt a few extra moments on the final green just to savour it.

Even with the best will in the world, it's unlikely for the British Open to return to Portrush this decade -- wouldn't 2021, the 60th anniversary of its last visit, sit neatly in history?

In the interim, the enthusiasm with which the North embraced their first opportunity to stage the Irish Open since 1953 offers compelling support to suggestions that the event should once again be rotated on alternate years ... even if the title is owned by the Government in the Republic.

"I think Royal County Down could be a great Irish Open venue," said McDowell. "The event should be rotated around the best links courses in Ireland, of which Portrush, Royal County Down, Portstewart, Ballyliffin are just a few of many great courses on the north coast.

"We should be able to come up with something," he added. "If sponsors are hard to come across in this day and age, I'm sure the Northern Irish government have enjoyed the input they have had this week.

"It would be great if we can come to some sort of an arrangement where perhaps we can take it up here one year and it goes back down the south the next. I've no idea, that's up to the European Tour and everyone involved in Irish golf to decide."

McDowell certainly sent his family, friends and neighbours home happy with a final-round 66. Had the Ryder Cup hero putted a little better on the lush slow greens, he'd have finished far better than in a tie for 16th place on 10-under-par (worth €27,600).

If the 'home' players enjoyed an occasion to remember in Portrush, Donaldson (36) made it a week he'll never forget by sealing his first win in 255 events on the European Tour and the fourth by a Welshman at the Irish Open with his superlative final round.

It all actually started last Monday when Donaldson qualified for this month's Open at Lytham on the back of a 62 at Sunningdale in International Final Qualifying.

Confidence

Then he replaced his caddie of five years, James Baker, with Mick Donaghy last Tuesday, before winning a €110,000 BMW Coupe on Thursday with his first-ever hole-in-one as a professional at Calamity, the 203-yard par-three 14th at Royal Portrush.

A hat-trick of birdies on the second, third and fourth gave Donaldson that precious ring of confidence. Conversely, his playing companion in the final group, England's Anthony Wall, blew his hopes apart with a nightmare triple-bogey eight at the second hole.

Wall, who'd been just one behind overnight, must have set some sort of tour record as he carved his first drive there out of bounds on the right, then pull-hooked the reload so far left, the two balls were an estimated 180 yards apart.

Royal Portrush honorary ambassador Darren Clarke's Trojan off-course work in the build-up to the tournament was hardly reflected in his tie for 39th on four-under.

Yet the British Open champion, in making the weekend and closing with a 71, certainly boosted confidence for the defence of the Claret Jug next month.

Though disappointed to finish 54th after his final round of 72, Paul McGinley caught the mood of many nicely afterwards when he said: "I leave with great memories of Portrush and the Irish Open up here. The fantastic crowds are going to be my memory of this Open, rather than my golf."

Irish Independent

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