Wednesday 21 February 2018

Realisation of Royal decree

A concerted effort to get the Irish Open back to Portrush is set to pay off in style, says Dermot Gilleece

'Darren sold Portrush to me,' said Jose-Maria Olazabal. 'He was always telling me about this fantastic, natural links and its beautiful location.'
'Darren sold Portrush to me,' said Jose-Maria Olazabal. 'He was always telling me about this fantastic, natural links and its beautiful location.'

Faced with formidable obstacles over recent decades, Northern Ireland tourism officials were obliged to try that bit harder. Now, happily in peaceful times, their endeavours look set to deliver a record-breaking Irish Open, starting at Royal Portrush on Thursday.

It has already become the first event on the European Tour with a 27,000 Sunday sell-out. Hospitality packages are also sold out and given reasonable weather, indications are it can achieve another Tour first by breaking cumulative attendance figures of 100,000 over the four days.

The ingredients are impressive. Ten Major champions, including Keegan Bradley, Rich Beem and John Daly from the US, will be challenging the celebrated Dunluce links. Long recognised at its core as one of the world's truly great second-shot courses, significant upgrading a few years ago stretched its overall length to 7,143 yards.

This week's happening is the realisation of a dream, not only for local enthusiasts but for self-appointed propagandists such as Darren Clarke, the reigning Open champion. As a local resident, Clarke is returning to action this week after a month's absence because of injury.

"I was about 15 on my first competitive round at Royal Portrush and I remember making a nine at the first," he recalled. "Yet far from alienating me, the only lasting effect was to ensure that I would never be a fan of internal out-of-bounds. I went on to become a huge devotee of the Dunluce Links and am convinced that daily practice there played a very big part in my Open win at Royal St George's.

"There are only a few situations at Portrush where you won't see the ball land. If you choose to, you can hit every shot 10 feet off the ground which makes for links golf at its best. And the new back tees have strengthened the course enormously.

"I'm a massive fan of its designer, Harry Colt, who also did such a wonderful job at Sunningdale. Interestingly, his risk-and-reward philosophy is all the more relevant in the modern game. As for the setting: I can't imagine anything to stir the heart like the view from the fifth, going down to the White Rocks and the ocean beyond."

Even Clarke would concede, however, that he is something of a blow-in compared to Graeme McDowell where long-time association with the links is concerned. McDowell will talk about the picture of Fred Daly with the Claret Jug hanging in the clubhouse at Rathmore GC and which he passed countless times as an eager youngster learning his craft. "I thought it surreal that Fred came from a small town like Portrush," he said.

Winner of the 2000 Irish Close Championship over Dunluce, he is now looking to emulate Daly's remarkable consistency in the wake of his Major breakthrough. After capturing the Open at Hoylake in 1947, Daly went on to finish second in 1948, third in 1950, fourth in 1951 and third in 1952. So, even on the basis on his runner-up finish at The Olympic Club last Sunday, McDowell still has some way to go to match his hero.

Of course the 1951 Open at Portrush should have been about Daly, who signed more autographs than, ideally, he would like to have done. Instead, victory went to Max Faulkner, who signed autographs he might sensibly not have done. Daly claimed afterwards that he did more than the rest of the field put together, while Faulkner seriously tempted fate by signing himself 'Open Champion 1951' with the final round still to play.

We're told that Bernard Darwin of The Times quickly brought him back to earth. "Faulkner," barked the doyen of the golf-writing fraternity within minutes of the final putt finding the cup, "I understand you've won the Open. Sit there and I'll write about you."

The thoughts of issuing such a command to modern-day practitioners such as Nick Faldo, Ernie Els or Tiger Woods is enough to make one's blood run cold.

Even with the staging of the Senior British Open from 1995 to 1999 -- when Christy O'Connor Jnr was victorious -- and again in 2004, this week's will be the biggest event at Portrush since Faulkner's Open of 61 years ago. And the scale of that championship was actually quite modest compared with this undertaking.

Back in 1951, when Portstewart was used for qualifying and the final two rounds were staged on Friday, July 7, attendances were estimated at around 7,000 per day earlier in the week and roughly 8,000 for the climax. And fans had the luxury of walking the fairways which were not roped off. Another enduring memory among locals is the manner in which defending champion Bobby Locke handled the treacherous, short 14th, known as Calamity Corner. His strategy each day was to hook a fairway wood into the depression left of the green from where he would chip and putt for par. So it was that 'Bobby Locke's hollow' became one of the legacies of the event.

Irish Open director Antonia Beggs of the European Tour has remarked on the tremendous enthusiasm of local people towards ensuring the success of the venture. Which is no more that it deserves, given the long wait since Harry Bradshaw won the last Irish Open to be staged at Portrush in 1947.

Its return there clearly has much to do with the astounding achievements of McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Clarke, as Major championship winners between June 2010 and July 2011. And the wisdom of exploiting their successes by going North at this time seems certain to be vindicated.

The presence of Bradley, the reigning US PGA champion, is a huge boost, given that it will be his first appearance in Europe. Daly, of course, was a popular visitor to Mount Juliet stagings, notably in 1994 when he was runner-up to Bernhard Langer. Incidentally, apart from Ireland's elite quartet, the Major line-up is completed by Paul Lawrie (1999 Open), Michael Campbell, the 2003 Irish Open champion who went on to capture the US Open in 2005, and current Ryder Cup captain, Jose-Maria Olazabal, who won the title in 1990 at Portmarnock.

Olazabal is an interesting challenger at this stage of his career. The 46-year-old first experienced Irish links terrain when representing Spain in the Junior World Championship at Portmarnock in 1981 and returned, still as an amateur, to compete in the Irish Open at Royal Dublin in 1985 when he was tied 34th.

"Darren sold Portrush to me," said the winner of two US Masters titles. "He was always telling me about this fantastic, natural links and its beautiful location. He kept saying, 'If you have the chance, come and play it'. Well, when I heard that the Irish Open was going there this year, I simply had no choice but to enter the tournament. I can't wait to see the place for myself."

By way of emphasising his insider status, Colin Montgomerie made sure to confine himself to first names only when referring to competitors as a member of Sky's commentary team at The Olympic Club last weekend. Now, despite the passing years, it is to be hoped he will be somewhat more credible when returning to competitive action as a three-time winner of this title.

The field also includes defending champion Simon Dyson and a predictable clutch of Irish challengers including Michael Hoey, the North of Ireland champion at Portrush in 2000, when McDowell was a semi-finalist, and an impressive winner of the Hassan Trophy in March of this year, when he beat Damien McGrane by three strokes. Shane Lowry, Irish Open champion as an amateur in 2009 at Baltray, is also certain to attract plenty of admirers.

Of all the home players, however, McIlroy and Pádraig Harrington seem likely to attract the biggest galleries. After a lengthy build-up, the performance of McIlroy will command particular attention in view of erratic form which has seen him miss four of his last five cuts, including the US Open.

While the 23-year-old attempts to turn the corner back to productive form, Harrington believes he himself has already negotiated it, after an eighth-place finish in the US Masters and an impressive share of fourth at The Olympic Club. A significant plus in the gradual restoration of Harrington's confidence, is that Portrush is unlikely to impose as much pressure on his fragile putting stroke as was the case on firm, fast surfaces in San Francisco.

Given the inspirational impact of our Major quartet since 2007, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect a home victory on this occasion. Taking a broader view, however, the hope is that amenable weather will help showcase a links test of rare grandeur which, through no fault of its own, has been confined to the shadows for far too long.

Tourist officials north of the border have earned a golfing break.

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