Golfers come on Down as the Irish Open heads to town
In 12 days from now, Rory McIlroy will lead golfing's glitterati to Royal County Down for the PGA event. Ivan Little saw the preparations and savoured the excitement
Wars have been waged with less advance planning than the Irish Open. And against the breathtaking and sun-bathed backdrop of the majestic Mourne Mountains, a veritable army of workmen were this week busying themselves in a military-style precision operation to transform the famous Royal County Down course into what locals are calling Rory County Down for the prestige tournament.
Behind the scenes, golfing and tourism chiefs, police officers, transport officials, council bosses, hoteliers, caterers and club volunteers have been meeting regularly to finalise the strategy for one of the biggest days in Royal County Down's already illustrious history, when 80,000 people will turn Newcastle into a sporting mardi gras from May 28-31.
On Wednesday, a non-stop convoy of heavily-laden articulated lorries and vans was still shuttling more and more essentials for the erection beside the clubhouse of a huge tented village which has more canvas than I've ever seen outside Camp Bastion.
Nearby, an enormous edifice for corporate hospitality was nearing completion beside the 18th hole and a media centre was taking shape to house the global media circus of broadcasters and up to 140 newspaper journalists.
All around, grandstands have been springing up to provide spectators with superb vistas of the action and the jaw-dropping scenery and TV gantries will allow the cameras to beam pictures to more than 450 million viewers in more than 60 countries.
The TV audience will be swollen by the participation of so many of the world's top golfers, including Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald and Martin Kaymer in the Dubai Duty Free-sponsored Open, but the main focus will be on the star who has made it all possible by persuading the golfing glitterati to come on Down to one of his favourite courses.
That man is, of course, Rory McIlroy, whose photograph is already dominating the landscape at Royal County Down and its merchandising shop.
And the world's number one, who is hosting the Open on behalf of his charity, the Rory Foundation, which is helping a children's cancer project just up the road from the golf course, is also the man about town, too - on every banner, every poster heralding Newcastle's first Open since 1939.
The European Tour are organising the tournament and championship director Antonia Beggs was touring RCD this week to ensure that everything was progressing well.
At the pristine clubhouse, the reception staff were handing over tickets to a steady stream of callers and inside his office, David Wilson, the club secretary was like a man possessed - of calmness, exuding a totally unflappable manner in a scenario which might cause a lesser man to panic.
"It's all going very well," he said. "The European Tour are responsible for everything that happens inside the ropes, plus getting the players here and so on, while the interface between them, ourselves and the local community has been focused through Tourism NI and the district council."
Mr Wilson has been told by the European Tour that all the tickets for the Open will probably sell out soon, which was music to his ears, because he sees the tournament as a magnificent fillip for not only his club, but also for Newcastle, south Down and Northern Ireland.
Royal County Down officials are taking on an extra 25 staff for their catering outlets and doubling their green staff to 44 with the arrival of 22 volunteer greenkeepers from other courses across the UK.
Upwards of 500 club members will take up positions around the course to marshal the crowds, 20% of whom are expected to travel from the Republic and from further afield.
At the Open in Portrush in 2012, local traders were preparing for an invasion which never materialised, as golf fans were forced to keep their distance from the seaside resort with a strict ruling that they had to stay within the confines of Royal Portrush.
But David Wilson said: "One of the first things we insisted with the European Tour was that there would be pass-outs during the day. And so for the first time ever with the Open, that is happening and hopefully there will be some follow-on from that for pubs, businesses and restaurants.
"But we are also concerned that people should realise that most of the benefits from having the Open will come in years two, three, four and five as a result of the television coverage. We hope the world will see the wonderful Mournes and the beautiful area around here and will want to come for holidays."
For Royal County Down, the global exposure will have a limited spin-off, because the course already attracts upwards of 10,000 visitors every year, the majority of them from America and it would be difficult to cope with many more.
Coping on the days of the Open in Newcastle could of course be a logistical nightmare and there are already dire predictions from several quarters that the influx of traffic could throttle the town. Even on a sunny non-Open day 72 hours ago, the town was buzzing, the car parks choc-a-bloc. So, what's it going to be like with an extra 20,000 incomers every day, with so few ways in and out of the town?
Belfast-born former RAF man Mr Wilson, however, pointed out that even bigger crowds - up to 100,000 - descend on Newcastle every year for the Festival of Flight in August. And Translink are convinced the traffic management plan for the Open will be up to the task.
Special coaches are being laid on all over Northern Ireland and extra buses will run from Belfast and Newry to Newcastle, where 20 double-deckers will ferry motorists for free from a park-and-ride area on the Castlewellan Road into the town.
Translink's southern area manager, Declan McGoran, said: "I wouldn't be overly worried about the four days of the Open. We have plenty of experience with big events like this week's Balmoral show, but the message we are giving people is to allow themselves plenty of time to travel."
He added that Translink had been liaising with the PSNI in a bid to ensure the traffic flow was smooth, but drivers know even in quieter times, all it takes is a sunny day to turn Newcastle into a motorist's nightmare and Ballynahinch into a bottleneck.
Newcastle Chamber of Commerce has taken to social media to assure non-golfers that the town will be open for business on the Open days.
And they've appealed to shopkeepers to open earlier and pull down their shutters later to enhance the aesthetics on parts of the town's Main Street, which is certainly not Newcastle's most appealing attraction.
Overflowing rubbish bins and carelessly discarded fast food wrappings have been the source of recent controversy too, but the Sinn Fein chairperson of the revamped Newry, Mourne and Down Council, Naomi Bailie, said extra cleansing staff would be on duty throughout the Open.
Several derelict buildings in and around Newcastle have been demolished, while others including an ice-cream shop called Lick have been getting a lick of paint, lower beds are being planted and beaches are being cleaned up, while the well-known mirrored globe on the promenade has been decked out to look like a giant golf ball.
The Stormont Executive gave £21,500 to help the council spruce up Newcastle and a similar amount for improvements to Ballynahinch, Saintfield, Annalong and Kilkeel, but the reality is the grants were less than most visiting golfers will have paid for the watches on their wrists.
Naomi Bailie, however, believes Newcastle will benefit greatly from its new broom. But she insisted that the council was catering for non-golfers too.
"We are also running a week-long fringe festival all around the Newcastle area, including bus tours of the Mournes along with a food and blues festival, so there will be something for everyone.
"And we'll also have a big screen in the middle of the town showing the golf."
Not all the visitors to Newcastle on Wednesday were backing the Open. Daytripper Ronnie Hawthorne, from Armagh, said he had no time for golf, which he described as a game for moneyed people.
"I would rather they were spending more on housing, or on people who are on the streets instead of wasting it foolishly. They're not doing enough for the ordinary folk."
Local craftsman and golfer Kevin Maguire, who has been doing odd jobs at Royal County Down, disagreed: "It's brilliant for the town. Everyone is excited - especially as the Open fans will be able to get out and go up the town to the restaurants and the bars."
Belfastman Raymond Millar, who has a caravan in Newcastle, said: "I think the Open is fantastic. I just hope that we will be able to travel around during the tournament, but I fear the place will be bunged."
Accommodation in the town was snapped up long ago and Janice Gault, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, said that as far away as Belfast, occupancy rates are already over 90%, even though the finalists in rugby's Pro-12 showdown at the Kingspan Stadium over the Open weekend aren't yet known.
The 181 rooms of the Slieve Donard Hotel beside the golf course have been booked out by the European Tour to ensure their stars are kept in the five-star luxury to which they're accustomed.
The hotel's operations manager, Niall Coffey, and Ciaran Murtagh, the deputy general manager, were confident they would come through with flying colours - even though they insist there's little room for them to up their game because it's up all year round.
"We've had the big names, like Arnold Palmer and Tony Jacklin, for the British Seniors in 2002 and Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler for the Walker Cup five years later," said Mr Murtagh. "We know what high-end golfers want and need."
As well as Royal County Down, the hotel will be a nerve-centre - and party central - for the Open, with massive demand for corporate packages of tickets, breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, which are going like, er, hot cakes at £300-a-time.
The hotel's entire workforce of 225 employees will be working shifts right throughout the Open and extra staff are being brought in from colleges and from other sister establishments in the Hastings Hotels group. The Slieve Donard will also be open to the public for lunch and dinners, but tables are booking up fast.
Many of the golfers, however, are expected to eat in their rooms after a hard day's golf and room service facilities are being increased.
Seventy-six years ago, when an Englishman won the last Open at Royal County Down, the galleries were a lot less crowded and something else that didn't appear on the radar then were ... helicopters.
Niall Coffey said: "The European Tour are thankfully managing all the helicopter flights in and out of the hotel, but the corporate end will be busy as well as the golfing fraternity".
For Janice Gault and hoteliers generally, the main impact of the Open won't be felt with what happens later this month, but with the legacy it leaves in its wake.
"The big winner for us will be the showcasing of Northern Ireland on television in America, where Rory McIlroy is amazingly popular, but another plus is the the fact that so many visitors will be heading here from the south.
"And, besides, we're also looking forward to the Open at Lough Erne in a couple of years and, hopefully, the British Open in 2019."
Rory is our hero, say Daisy Lodge staff
Officials at the Daisy Lodge cancer support centre for youngsters just outside Newcastle still find it hard to believe that Rory McIlroy is their benefactor ... and friend.
The £1m donation from the golfer's charity, the Rory Foundation, enabled the Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children to open and run their crucially-needed therapeutic short-break facilities in the shadow of the Mournes.
But Rory, who performed the official opening, didn't just write a cheque. He's paid a couple of visits to the children and it's his Foundation which is hosting the Open Championships at nearby Royal County Down.
Daisy Lodge officials hope Rory - and maybe some of his golfing pals - can find time to call in at the centre during the tournament.
Phil Alexander said: "We will have an information stand at Royal County Down to help raise awareness among the players and the fans of what we do and we are also involved in the fringe festival."
He added: "We are thrilled to have Rory supporting us again and, who knows ,we might also get a few more people coming on board to back us."
Families at the centre obviously have more to worry about than golf, but Phil said there was a buzz among the children and the staff about the Open.
It's hoped that some of the youngsters will be able to travel to Royal County Down and meet their heroes.