Sunday 15 September 2019

Portrush makes the most of its proud moment in the sun

The continuity around Royal Portrush struck Graeme McDowell on his return: “Ninety per cent of the golf course remains exactly how I remember it.” Photo: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile
The continuity around Royal Portrush struck Graeme McDowell on his return: “Ninety per cent of the golf course remains exactly how I remember it.” Photo: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile

Jeremy Wilson

Portrush, it is safe to assume, has never seen anything quite like it. Over four days of competition, not to mention four extraordinarily well-attended practice days, almost 250,000 spectators have descended on a town of just over 7,000 inhabitants.

It is an equation that has naturally thrown up some complications and the sight of numerous police and plain clothes officers near the Harbour bar mingling with thousands of revellers on Friday night was a sight that initially confused locals given the joyful ambience.

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It later transpired, according at least to Mac the taxi driver, that they were there en masse simply to ensure no one toppled into the sea.

Portrush, understandably, has been determined both to maximise and enjoy this rare opportunity.

Homes worth around £200,000 are being rented at a weekly rate of £6,000, and the town's estate agents have reported a wider 25 per cent spike in house prices. Local tourism even before a ball was struck was said to be up around 40 per cent at £200m for the year and championship week alone is expected to generate a further £80m.

The pubs, restaurants, takeaways and souvenir shops started noticing a difference even since the spring as the operation to build all the temporary on-course infrastructure began and players such as Justin Rose became more regularly sighted sampling the Guinness in bars around town.

At The Vintage, an antiques store on Portrush's Main Street, stock that would usually cover six months of trade had been brought in and was proving especially popular among the American fans.

The wider and longer-term benefit to Northern Ireland is almost incalculable. Estimates vary but, rather like the Tour de France in cycling, there is an intangible boost to having your spectacular scenery beamed across the globe.

"We will reach an audience of around 600 million households," said Martin Slumbers, the R&A chief executive. "I don't think it can be underestimated how much global exposure the Open provides to Royal Portrush and the people of Northern Ireland."

Seeing the overhead footage of their own stunning Causeway coast is also an internal reminder.

"You can take it for granted but it really does make you realise how lucky we are," says Richard Beggs, who runs the junior section at Royal Portrush and is on the Championship committee.

"We are a country of one and a half million - we are never going to host the Olympics, the football World Cup or rugby World Cup, but we can hold our own in golf. It has to be the biggest sporting event this country has ever held."

Beggs is also a PE teacher at the nearby Coleraine Grammar School so has experienced both how the community anticipation has built and the local impact of a £6m investment by the Northern Ireland Executive in a lasting facelift for the town centre.

"It was due an awful lot of work and it has really been a shot in the arm," said Beggs.

Pavements have been relaid and new walkways created, but the main centrepiece of the upgrade has been to the station, which is now five times the size.

"I've never seen the town looking so great - it's enormous when you see it happening in your hometown and how everyone benefits," said Graeme McDowell, who was born and brought up in Portrush.

The only obvious grumble around the town centre is a 'no-return' policy inside Royal Portrush which means spectators are encouraged to empty their pockets at the venue rather than nearby local shops.

The course itself has been upgraded by the R&A over a five-year period to include two new holes carved through sand dunes and even a tunnel at the back of the sixth green that could fit a small car. It is for the players to get between several of the holes but basically allows several thousand more people to spectate on that part of the course. Change was minimised during renovations and most of the greens that were used when Royal Portrush hosted its first tournaments in the 19th century remain in the same place today.

The unique landscape can also still be clearly identified from the grainy old footage in 1951 and it was the basic continuity which especially struck McDowell when he returned. "Ninety per cent of the golf course remains exactly how I remember it," he said.

Among the members, who were allowed to play right up until two weeks before the tournament started, it is also hard to find a dissenting voice.

Wilma Erksine, club secretary-manager for 34 years, has overseen an extraordinary change. She says that "tourism didn't happen" at that time of the Troubles when she began her role but that visitors now descend on Royal Portrush from every corner of the globe. The event was sold out within a month of going on sale and the club's junior and cadet section is booming. "I think the R&A will want to return here quite soon," she says.

For Rory McIlroy, it might have been a disappointingly short stay but the pride was still unmistakable even as he departed on Friday.

"It says a lot about the country and a lot about the times that we are able to host such an event," he said.

After five years of preparations, today will mark an ending of sorts, but the great excitement both for Portrush and Northern Ireland is that it should only represent the end of a new beginning.

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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