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An Open Test

10 JUL 2019

Taking the Open Championship to Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years has been a controversial decision since it was announced. It has nothing to do with the golf course, which is demanding, penal and perennially ranked among the best in the world.

By Peter Mumford

By now you’ve surely heard the warnings: “Royal Portrush is a beast.”

The wild and woolly course, tucked into the monstrous dunes hard on the edge of the North Atlantic, will host the 148th Open Championship July 18-21, and the local joke isn’t so much about how many golf balls will be lost amongst the gnarly rough and terrifying depths but rather if all the players will make it out alive.

If that sounds like hype, consider the fact that just down the road lies the ruins of Dunluce Castle, which dates to the 1500’s and was used more recently as one of the settings for Game of Thrones. The Castle sits on the edge of a cliff that plunges hundreds of feet into the sea and provides magnificent views along the coast to the golf course and quaint Irish town of Portrush.

The Open Championship came here once before, in 1951, when Englishman Max Faulkner captured the Claret Jug with a brave score of 285, 3-under par. Only one other player finished the tournament in red figures, as the weather and golf course battered the players like nothing they were used to in Scotland and England. Oddly, it took over 60 years before the R&A considered coming back and it was largely the efforts of three people that made it happen.

Graeme McDowell is a local and grew up playing Royal Portrush. He won the US Open at Pebble Beach in 2010 and said then that one of his lifelong dreams would be to have the Open Championship return to his home course. McDowell’s major triumph was followed the next year by Darren Clark’s victory at Royal St. George’s, leading to more discussion about a return to Northern Ireland.

The R&A is mum on the subject, as they are on many things, but it is accepted that The Troubles are the root cause of leaving Northern Ireland out of their famous Open rota. For several decades starting in the late 60’s, nobody gave much thought to going to the North, as you could never be certain when something would flare up. Although most of the conflict was hours away in places like Belfast and Derry, the entire country suffered as tourism and commercial activity dwindled.

Even after The Troubles were over, Northern Ireland never got a mention from the R&A.

Wilma Erskine has been the Secretary of Royal Portrush since 1984 and the only woman to hold that title at any Royal club in the world. She’s a tireless fighter for Northern Ireland and Portrush in particular. Long before McDowell and Clark won their majors and started advocating for a return to Portrush, she was touting her course as a venue for something bigger.

It bothers her that people just forgot about Northern Ireland. “Helloooo, we’re here. This is Northern Ireland. We’ve been through a lot of pain in the past, but you know something? We’re up and going and we can manage anything.”

Erskine persevered, eventually winning over the intractable Peter Dawson, the former head of the R&A. Dawson’s reluctance wasn’t just political – hosting an Open in 2019 is a far cry from 1951. He knew the kind of infrastructure that would be needed, the massive amounts of money required and the difficulty convincing other people that going back to Royal Portrush would be feasible.

Wilma kept at it, she got the money - over $22 million for local improvements and infrastructure - and convinced all the right people. The 2019 Open Championship is expected to have a 100-million-pound economic impact on the local area. Many say that it will be the biggest sporting event in the country’s history.

During the PGA Merchandise Show last January, I was invited to an outing hosted by Tourism Ireland. It’s an annual gathering of media, tour operators, course managers and tourism officials. Many people are introduced at the luncheon following golf but amid the noise and clutter, it’s often hard to hear what they say. When Wilma Erskine was introduced there was a standing ovation like I’ve never seen before. And when she spoke, there wasn’t a peep in the room until she finished her remarks. They appreciate what Wilma has done and they know, this is Wilma’s Open.

The town of Portrush has a population of 10,000, that maybe swells to 15,000 in the summer months. There aren’t a lot of hotels in the area, nor in the neighbouring towns of Portstewart, Bushmills or Coleraine. For the Open Championship, almost 250,000 people are expected for the week and most will drive or be bused in from Belfast, more than an hour away. It’s not certain where players, volunteers and officials will stay.

To make room for the 2019 Open, a few course changes have been made. The original was laid out by Old Tom Morris back in the 1880’s but the current course is largely the work of Harry Colt (Hamilton, Toronto Golf Club) in the 1930’s. It’s a series of twists and turns, some holes exposed to the sea, others tucked between dunes. Ribbon-like fairways meander in every direction, making the wind a new factor on each hole. Portrush is NOT nine out and nine back as some links are. It’s a maze.

Many expect that the winning score in 2019 won’t be much better than Max Faulkner scored 68 years ago. A course with hole names such as Giant’s Grave, Calamity Corner and Purgatory offers a hint of what might be expected. There are places where no recovery will be possible – over the edges of dunes, so far below the fairways, lodged in waist high grass, it’s unlikely a ball could even be found, let alone played.

Two new holes (#7 and #8) were added for this Open and the 17th and 18th eliminated. According to most, it’s an even stronger finish now. The old 18th wasn’t much of a finishing hole anyway and will now house the merchandise tents and TV compound, but the 17th had one of the largest bunkers in the world and was considered a historic landmark at Portrush. Known as the Big Nellie bunker, it was an enormous expanse of sand carved into a huge mound right in the landing area. A ‘new’ Big Nellie has been added on the new 7th.

There aren’t a lot of bunkers on the course – just 62 in total but the absence of sand shouldn’t be taken as an absence of grief. There’s still more than enough trouble to find. Ironically, a local lad holds the course record at Royal Portrush. In 2005, Rory McIlroy recorded a round of 61, that was thought to be impossible back then and is still considered an aberration.

McIlroy, as you might expect, has been an ardent booster for the Open Championship to return to Royal Portrush. Although he holds the course record, he’s excited and cautious at the same time. “I'm sort of treating it like a once in a lifetime opportunity but I still have to enjoy it. I can't put so much pressure on myself. I've made that mistake before at tournaments and it hasn't quite worked out for me.”

There’s a lot more riding on this Open than one Claret Jug. Taking the Championship to Northern Ireland is a test. If it’s a success, it’s likely that Royal Portrush could become a permanent part of the Open rota making it a dream come true for Wilma Erskine, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clark and many more.

And if McIlroy were to hoist the Claret Jug for a second time on the shores of the Irish coast, it’s hard to imagine the celebration that would ensue.

Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag