Saturday 17 August 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'For those who dared to dream'

Shane Lowry waits to putt on the fifth green yesterday.
Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Shane Lowry waits to putt on the fifth green yesterday. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

They had come to see Tiger Woods adorn their cherished terrain with the majesty of his ball striking. Instead, they got the arthritic movements of a middle-aged man, progressing awkwardly through deep duneland while quietly cursing the stiffening effects of moisture-laden air.

Rory McIlroy, too, dominated the thoughts of the thousands who began queuing at 5.0am on Thursday before being admitted at 6.0. By Friday evening, both favourites had departed a scene which might have been shaped in their honour, but not before McIlroy had been cheered to the echo, while missing out by a stroke.

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Spectator enthusiasm has remained buoyant through some testing changes in the weather. You imagined their numbers containing as a hardcore, the throngs from the Irish Open of 2012, when four truly horrendous days failed to diminish a European Tour attendance record.

Among the players, their enthusiasm struck a particular chord with Shane Lowry, lending emphasis to the importance of having a home player in contention in these circumstances.

Delightful interaction between the Offalyman and the galleries caused Lowry to remark: "I can't explain how good it felt to be out there in the middle of all that, to be between the ropes hitting the shots. It's just an incredible feeling, getting applauded on every green, every tee-box."

As with the charming intimacy of a remarkable Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch two weeks ago, there are other elements which are making this a wonderful experience. One of these concerns the McDowell family of whom a gifted member has made the cut while a less famous son, Gary, happens to be employed on the Portrush greens staff.

His brother Graeme, who had tears in his eyes while standing on the first tee on Thursday, recalled his early days as a junior golfer knocking balls around this precious turf.

"Just like we've had this week, I faced some serious weather and climate issues up here on the north coast," he said. "That was when my dad instilled into me and my brothers that if you had a card in your pocket, you never walked in. You finished the round. I suspect that's where the element of battling came into my game. My dad ensured that we finished, whether in hail, rain or snow. That kind of shaped the player I have become."

By way of meeting the pater familias, I took a trip down to the Rathmore Club where Kenny McDowell is a past president. And while his son's image dominated the television screen in the members' bar, there he was, enjoying a pint of beer with his friends during this special week.

From the Rathmore clubhouse, the walk back towards the first tee had a fascinating aspect to it. Like treading over distance markers for the old 18th hole - one for 100 yards and the next for 56 yards - while enclosed by the Champions' Club and The Open Shop down the left, and the Swing Zone over on the right.

Up ahead, competitors were doing their stuff on a splendid putting green. "That's the old 18th," said a club member, now acting as a marshal. "It was always one of our better greens."

Out on the course, a regular challenger at this level was pleased about being reacquainted with an old friend. Playing in his 25th successive Open, Lee Westwood surveyed the Dunluce stretch while remarking: "I've seen all this before, when I played the Amateur Championship here in 1993. The course couldn't be any better."

He added: "The two new holes blend in nicely and the rest of it is just spectacular, though quite a bit awkward when it blows across certain holes."

Meanwhile, world number one Brooks Koepka acknowledged his good fortune in having his own "guardian angel" in local man, Ricky Elliott, to guide him through such a formidable test.

"Obviously he knows this golf course like the back of his hand," the American conceded. "He knows where to miss it, especially where the pin might be. If the pin is on the right side, the club off the tee might be a little different. And these are some of the best greens I've seen in links golf."

John Bamber, chairman of the host club's championship committee and club captain in 2010, didn't hide his gratification at what had been achieved in a relatively short space of time. "This is spectacular," he enthused. "You get the feeling that Royal Portrush has been brought back to what it once was - a true links."

He went on to highlight the forward thinking of his fellow members. How they accepted the changes to the course as part of an evolutionary process. "If you're driving here from Belfast, the new seventh is the golf hole that hits your eye as soon as you come around the corner," he said. "You're looking right down the line of it; a terrific sight; true links land."

On a gentle ramble through the facility earlier in the week, Peter Dawson looked like simply another face in the crowd. He was the one largely responsible for driving the idea of Portrush as an Open venue and on arriving here last Monday, he saw the finished product for the first time.

"My previous visit was two years ago, when I played in the Irish Open Pro-Am at Portstewart," said the former chief executive of the R and A. "That was when I saw the new seventh and eighth holes for the first time."

Explaining the decision to remove the old 17th and 18th, he said: "We had to find space for the tented village that was reasonably flat. Where we found the two new holes was essentially down to Martin Ebert [course architect], who could see the strength of the old 16th as a finishing hole and was familiar with the adjoining Valley course."

Why come to Portrush after Carnoustie and Hoylake had both been restored to the Open rota? "There would always be appeal in returning to such a wonderful golf course," he replied. "All the key parties involved were very supportive and I think when the Irish Open was staged here in 2012, we saw how positive that was. Then there was the Irish players doing so well. Pádraig [Harrington] first, then G-Mac [Graeme McDowell], then Darren [Clarke] and Rory [McIlroy]. They gave it a serious push."

He concluded: "Ultimately, it was down to a lot of things going in the right direction and, fingers crossed, it looks like we're going to have a smashing week."

So, what was the bill for this splendid golfing extravaganza? 'Extravagant' seems to be the word on the ground here is Portrush. Yet the indications are that it cost not much more than the Republic of Ireland Government paid to capture the 2006 Ryder Cup.

I understand that with Arlene Foster taking care of sporting matters, the Northern Ireland Executive came up with £8m as their contribution to the return of The Open. Which is likely to be paid in instalments, with the understanding of two further stagings after this weekend.

In the build-up to 1997 at Valderrama, Pádraig Ó hUiginn was in charge of Irish negotiations for the Ryder Cup. "We came up with what became the final figure of IR£7.5m," he told me. "I thought this was a reasonable figure, spread over seven or possibly eight years."

Could The Open be the next event to find its way onto Republic of Ireland terrain? "There's a lot of talk about that this week," said Dawson's successor, Martin Slumbers. And a lot of it is due to the success of bringing it back to Royal Portrush after a long, long time.

"But we now have 10 courses in the pool we use for the Open Championship. We think they're 10 of the best links courses that we have in the world and we are very happy with those 10 courses." He added: "I think Hoylake and Portrush are really venues which are going to be used for The Open for many years to come."

Back in the early 1990s, when Michael Bonallack was in command at St Andrews, Portmarnock was viewed as a genuine Open candidate, not least because of a highly successful Walker Cup there in 1991. But that was a time when, in the absence of Carnoustie and Hoylake, the rota of courses looked somewhat thin. Things are clearly different now, with those two venues back in the fold.

A crucial element of such speculation, however, is that the R and A have never ruled out the Republic of Ireland as a possible Open destination. As the title of the event would indicate, they don't operate within geographical boundaries, though Harrington's recent suggestion that it could go to Holland or even Australia appears somewhat far-fetched.

Meanwhile, the heart of this golfing island continues to beat strongly and maybe a little more proudly, now that another page is being filled in its illustrious history. Those who had dared to dream wild dreams, are witnessing a sight which truly delights the eye.

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