Sunday 25 August 2019

'Spectacular, unbelievable' Royal Portrush prepares for the greatest show in town

The Open's return to Portrush this week will be the biggest golfing event ever witnessed on this island but it might be asking too much to have a home winner

'At a special function last Thursday, Royal Portrush honoured the remarkable Mrs Erskine for her incalculable contribution to this great happening, before her retirement later this year'. Photo: R&A via Getty Images
'At a special function last Thursday, Royal Portrush honoured the remarkable Mrs Erskine for her incalculable contribution to this great happening, before her retirement later this year'. Photo: R&A via Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

On a bleak autumn day in 2013, an intrepid Royal and Ancient duo set off on a buggy into the deep duneland of Royal Portrush. When they returned a few hours later, one of them remarked: "You're not going to like this one. We think we could do it, but it's going to involve two new holes."

This was how Peter Dawson, then chief executive of the R and A, conveyed to his hosts the conclusions he and his links architect, Martin Ebert, had arrived at regarding a possible return there of The Open Championship.

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"We now call that our 'eureka' moment," said the club's secretary/manager, Wilma Erskine.

More than two years earlier, on a pleasant Sunday evening at Killarney GC, George O'Grady, then chief executive of the European Tour, approached Taoiseach Enda Kenny. "Would you have any objections if we took the Irish Open to the North?" O'Grady asked. "Absolutely not," came the immediate reply.

So that one decision fostered another. Record attendances at Portrush for the 2012 Irish Open convinced the R and A that the club's pursuit of The Open had to be taken seriously.

And the foresight of Dawson and Ebert in creating 10 acres of precious infrastructural space by the removal of the 17th and 18th holes effectively allowed it to happen.

As a consequence, we are about to witness the greatest golf event ever to be staged on this island, surpassing its predecessor in 1951 and the Canada Cup, Alcan Golfer of the Year and the Ryder Cup, in between. The oldest one still carries a cachet like no other.

One of the more appealing stories in the build-up to this week was Graeme McDowell's success in gaining a qualifying slot. Last month in the Canadian Open, an outrageous, 30-foot putt on the final green in Hamilton allowed him to complete a closing 68 for tied eighth behind Rory McIlroy. More specifically, it got him into The Open on its return to his home town.

Rory McIlroy has described Royal Portrush as
Rory McIlroy has described Royal Portrush as "spectacular, unbelievable"

"To have the Open at Portrush and not to be part of it would have been bitter-sweet for me," he admitted. This is the player who once remarked proudly: "There's a picture in Rathmore Golf Club of Fred Daly with the British Open trophy and I must have walked by it thousands of times as a kid. Later on, I thought it surreal that he came from a small town like Portrush."

Down in Killarney, O'Grady and his colleagues in the European Tour were profoundly conscious of the achievements of Northern Ireland players, not least because that particular Irish Open happened to come in the aftermath of Darren Clarke's Open triumph at Royal St George's. Only a month previously, McIlroy had followed McDowell as US Open champion with a runaway triumph at Congressional.

Their deeds deserved to be honoured in an appropriate way. And a good start would be to see what doors might be pushed ajar by having the Irish Open at Portrush.

"There's a lot of people, people like Wilma Erskine, who can take pride in what has come about," said McIlroy, the 2014 champion.

On recent visits there, he described the course as "spectacular, unbelievable", yet comfortably familiar. "When I got on the first tee, everything sort of started coming back to me," he went on. "On the second tee, I aim it at the brown house, the fourth ... Everything started to come back. It felt like just the same old golf course that I grew up playing and it was nice.

"There's nothing I'd like more than to lift that Claret Jug in front of all my friends and family and all the kids it might inspire."

Clarke played the Dunluce stretch for the first time as a lad of 15, which he recalls not for the commanding quality of his shot-making, but for the humbling experience of a nine at the opening hole. Interestingly, the lasting effect of this chastisement was not to alienate him, but simply to ensure that he would never become a fan of internal out-of-bounds.

"I went on to become a huge devotee of the links and am convinced that daily practice there played a very big part in my Open Championship win," he said.

When drawn into comparing it with its great Ulster rival at Newcastle, he said: "I would consider Royal Co Down to be one of the best second-shot golf courses in the world, but it doesn't measure up to Portrush in one crucial respect. As a traditionalist, the great appeal of links golf for me is the opportunity it offers of playing the game close to the ground, including the running shot. This becomes all the more important with your game largely dictated by what the wind is doing.

"I reckon there are only a few situations at Portrush where you won't see the ball land and you can hit every shot 10 feet off the ground, if you choose to. And if it's a beautiful setting you're looking for, I can't imagine anything to stir the heart like the fifth, sweeping down to the White Rocks and the ocean beyond."

At a special function last Thursday, Royal Portrush honoured the remarkable Mrs Erskine for her incalculable contribution to this great happening, before her retirement later this year. A measure of her involvement in Irish golf was reflected in a visit herself and her husband made to Lahinch last Saturday. "My liver won't stand more than a day down here," she joked.

Though it could hardly be considered a forerunner to the '51 Open, the staging of the Irish Open at Portrush in 1947 remained significant as a test of the Harry Colt layout. And it brought considerable joy south of the border in the victory by Kilcroney's Harry Bradshaw.

The player's reaction to this win remains a charming story of sporting modesty.

As it happened, Bradshaw was three strokes behind Max Faulkner entering the homeward journey for the last time and he proceeded to outscore the Englishman, notably with three finishing birdies, to take the title by two strokes. The distinguished Belgian, Flory van Donck, was second and Faulkner was third, two strokes further back.

The Brad's homecoming involved a patient wait by his father, Ned, and brother Eddie, at the Kilmacanogue crossroads the following day, until the St Kevin's bus for Glendalough finally arrived. Out of it stepped the almost anonymous figure of the newly-crowned champion, identifiable only through his baggage of golf clubs and the splendid Irish Open trophy.

This was the way things were back then, when The Brad made his way, late that evening to a special celebration at Kilcroney GC. On the previous evening, he had quietly headed from Portrush back to Belfast from where he travelled on by train to Amiens Street Station in Dublin before catching the bus home. A car despatched from Kilcroney to collect him had gone speeding over the border while he travelled in the opposite direction.

He and Faulkner conjured a very different tale when they returned to Portrush four years later. Where the Englishman triumphed by two strokes, Bradshaw was in 15th place, 11 strokes back.

Graeme McDowell. Photo: Getty Images
Graeme McDowell. Photo: Getty Images

Events at Lahinch last weekend will be tellingly fresh in the memory when assessing forthcoming performances. For a start, it will be interesting to judge the extent to which Paul McGinley's set-up of the Co Clare links has carried through to another links challenge.

Mind you, at 7,344 yards, Portrush will be considerably longer. The key, however, will be the extent to which similar playing conditions of rough height and green speeds, have sharpened the competitive edge.

Jon Rahm, the newly-crowned Dubai Duty Free Irish Open champion, should have the answers. Against the background of remarkable success here, it will be interesting to see how Lahinch form translates to another Irish links.

Joe Carr, who won his third British Amateur title at Portrush in 1960, knew both courses intimately. "Apart from shot-making skills, Portrush presents a severe test of a player's temperament in that you won't necessarily get what you deserve there. If you don't use your brain and keep your emotions in check while playing the magnificent Dunluce Links, you're going to be dead as a dodo."

Two American visitors likely to arouse special interest are Brooks Koepka and Tiger Woods. As a US scribe has pointed out, the world No 1 player has earned "a ridiculous 65 per cent of his ranking points via Majors". This compares with an average of 19.72 per cent for the top 50 players in the world, which is quite staggering.

Koepka's best Open finish was tied sixth at Royal Birkdale two years ago and he was previously tied 10th at St Andrews. So he knows how to negotiate the terrain, while his coach, Pete Cowen, will be close at hand as a house-guest of Koepka's caddie, Ricky Elliott, a native of Portrush.

For his part, Woods may become a victim of the weather, according to David Feherty. "Personally, I kind of hope we get some real Open Championship weather," he said.

"And Tiger, typically, is not renowned as a bad-weather player. I don't know what sort of shape his back is in for that type of thing. Still, the only mistake I've made about Tiger over the years is underestimating him."

Meanwhile, having been largely responsible for adding its status to the Irish Open, it's ironic that McIlroy should be attempting to capture his first Rolex Series event in the Scottish Open.

His decision to miss Lahinch and play North Berwick's Renaissance Club has been hugely controversial. An unfortunate consequence, from his perspective, is that it greatly increases the focus on his Portrush endeavours.

And we have learned from recent experiences in the Masters that such pressure doesn't sit easily with him. Add to that his 61 around Portrush as a 16-year-old, and the level of expectation becomes all the more intense.

Maybe it's asking too much for a return of The Open to be accompanied by a home winner.

When Fred Daly was cast in a similar role back in 1951, it became more than the game was prepared to deliver.

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