Irish support boosted Portrush bid
The decision to bring the Open Championship back to Northern Ireland was influenced by overwhelming evidence of the region's huge appetite for golf, organisers the R&A has revealed.
Confirming that Royal Portrush has been added to the Open rota, with 2019 a potential date for its long-awaited return to major golf, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson cited the record-breaking attendance at the 2012 Irish Open at the venue as both an "eye opener" and "tipping point" when it came to deliberations about taking the tournament across the Irish sea for only the second time in its history
Dawson said the vision became a reality when architects confirmed that a partial course redesign, required to accommodate the Open's infrastructure demands, was workable.
He also made clear he had no security concerns about bringing the tournament to Northern Ireland during its oft-volatile marching season.
Referring to numerous recent reports predicting the move, Dawson joked that the announcement was "just about the world's worst kept secret".
"We couldn't be more excited about bringing the Open back here to one of the world's truly great links courses and we have every confidence that Royal Portrush will prove to be an excellent venue in absolutely every way," he said.
"Golf enjoys passionate support in Northern Ireland and indeed throughout Ireland, and we expect there will be huge interest in the championship from the many thousands of golf fans here."
Joining Stormont's political leaders at the clubhouse at Royal Portrush, which this week is hosting the Amateur Championship, Dawson added: "This a wonderful golf course which will challenge the world's top golfers.
"It's been more than 60 years since the Open was played here and it's been too long and we are very, very excited about it coming back."
The spectacular course on the scenic Causeway coast last staged the Open in 1951 - the only time it has been played outside England and Scotland.
The major could now return to Portrush as early as 2019.
Mr Dawson said the date would only be confirmed once the necessary approvals to undertake the course changes were obtained.
"There are planned course enhancements and infrastructure development which will require ratification by the club's members and by the planning authorities, and so we will not be able to announce a date for the first event until these permissions are in place.
"2019 is the earliest it can be but it maybe that we have to wait a year or two longer than that."
Golf fans in Northern Ireland have long held an aspiration that one day the tournament would return but only in recent years had that ambition started to look realistic.
Four major championship victories by local superstars Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke between 2010 and 2012 added a real impetus to the campaign to bring the championship back, with all three lobbying on behalf of the course.
Dawson joked that the "badgering" by the famous trio was not the deciding factor.
"I don't think their badgering had any great influence, although we had the craic, as they say, about it several times," he said.
"I think their performances, however, on the golf course and the staging of the Irish Open here was something of an eye opener in terms of just the strength of the fan base for golf in Northern Ireland and Ireland altogether.
"I think that certainly was part of it, as well as the wonderful golf course here and the great support and welcome we have been receiving from the Northern Ireland Executive and the club. So it's a lot of things coming together."
While the R&A initially expressed concerns on whether Portrush had the infrastructure required to stage a major championship, those doubts were largely set aside by the successful staging of the Irish Open.
Massive crowds that braved the rain and descended on Portrush from across Northern Ireland and beyond two years ago made it the first ever sell-out of a regular European Tour event.
During past decades of violence in Northern Ireland, hosting the Open would have been unthinkable.
While the peace process has transformed the region, sporadic public disorder still has a tendency to flare in mid-July, the week before the Open slot, as a result of loyal order parading disputes around the traditional 'Twelfth of July' commemorations.
In recent years trouble has been confined to small parts of Belfast - more than 50 miles from Portrush.
Mr Dawson said the R&A would not have decided to return to Portrush if it had any security concerns.
"The history here has caused some reputational damage here over time, I think everyone knows that, but we are very happy that that's in the past," he said.
"Like every other Open venue we work closely with the police, we take strong advice on security matters and behave accordingly, and it is obviously a prime motivation for us to make sure that the championship is conducted safely for everyone concerned and we will be continuing to work with police here as we do everywhere else to that end.
"Other than that I have nothing to say about it - if we thought there was a security problem here we wouldn't be making this announcement."
The R&A envisage Royal Portrush hosting the tournament on a regular basis in the future.
The Northern Ireland Executive has ploughed millions of pounds into efforts to bring high-profile sporting events to the region, most recently £4million to host the start of the Giro d'Italia cycling race in May.
But helping to secure the return of the Open will undoubtedly be regarded as the power-sharing administration's biggest coup yet in terms of attracting sporting showpieces.
Both the Executive and R&A confirmed they would be investing millions to get Portrush up to scratch for the Open. But they insisted the return on the investment would far eclipse that initial outlay, with each hosting of the tournament estimated to generate £70million for the local economy.
Stormont's First Minister Peter Robinson said landing the Open was tangible proof of the progress Northern Ireland had made since the dark days of the Troubles.
"We are a society that is being transformed," he said.
"This provides people with the knowledge this is what peace and stability looks like. From an Executive point of view this just wouldn't have happened, these men wouldn't have dreamed of coming here 20 years ago.
"This shows the new Northern Ireland, a confident Northern Ireland in a new era and this provides people with the hope of what normality looks like."
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness hailed the announcement as "out of this world".
"I think the changes that have happened, the political and security transformation of recent years has certainly sent a very powerful message to the world and to the R&A about our ability to handle these sorts of amazing occasions," he said.