It should have been a week to remember for all the right reasons.
And the Irish Open hit all the right notes for golfers. But some veteran traders in Portrush are reporting that it prompted their quietest week on record by turning it into a ghost town.
More than 130,000 spectators travelled to the small coastal town last week to see the biggest names in golf battle it out at Royal Portrush.
Behind the scenes, hopeful traders had been planning for weeks about how to cater for the deluge of customers expected into the town.
Phylis Niblock had been preparing for three months for the huge crowds attracted to the European Tour event.
Last week she recruited her three sons and daughter to help in T-Shirt City, her shop on Portrush Main Street, known locally as ‘the golden mile, which she has owned jointly with her husband Hugh for 40 years.
But the expected rush did not materialise.
She said: “I had a tenth of the trade I expected to have. It was a 60% drop in the normal trade for this time of year.
“When I see the whole town done up, it was just like having a posh visitor. The ordinary traders did not matter.”
Just off Main Street is Portrush Toys. Its proprietor, John Grey (70) has been running the seaside store for 40 years.
“Over 40 years I have never seen it as quiet as it was last week,” he said.
“I was roughly down 60% for this time of the year. It was terrible. The problem is people went into the golf, and they were not allowed out again.”
The Irish Open operated a no readmission policy which meant ticket holders would not be allowed to re-enter the course once they had left.
Some traders also feared that park-and-ride schemes designed to control traffic could divert business away from the town.
Charmian Ross (50) said she will have to cut staff numbers at her gift shop, Jaspers, on Portrush’s Main Street.
“There’s no other way that I can claw money back.
“I would employ 20 people in the summertime, but I will probably have to cut that by five. It was like a ghost town. I lost £5,480 last week in one week.”
As the Irish Open wound to a close on Sunday, hopes were rising that Royal Portrush had done enough to clinch The Open.
Behind the scenes every effort is now being made to bring the Major championship — held at Royal Portrush in 1951 — back in the next decade. Championship director Antonia Beggs from the European Tour, which organised the Irish Open, said that accommodation providers and restaurants in the area “have done phenomenally well”.
She added: “We always anticipated that people would come with the express intention of watching the golf.”
The principal reason behind the park-and-ride policy was |to ensure the town car parks |remained available and |that Portrush was open for business.
“The ‘no pass out’ policy is standard... as we need to know how many people are on-site at any given time and, additionally, the tickets are non-transferable and a no pass out policy prevents them from changing hands,” Ms Beggs added.
Main aim is to drive sales in the long-term
Golf tourism already generates £14m for the Northern Ireland economy — and that figure is expected to rise sharply on the back of the Irish Open.
And while some traders in Portrush have been left disappointed after a lack of a boost to business, not everyone feels that way, and it’s hoped the event will reap benefits for years to come.
Causeway Chamber of Commerce — which represents traders from Portrush and neighbouring towns — has carried out an anecdotal survey of its members.
A spokeswoman said: “The response on the whole has been positive, with sales at least on par with last year, or in a number of cases above last year.
“Indeed, all agreed that traders will reap the rewards in years to come.”
Another anticipated benefit is a rise in golf tourists coming to play at the likes of Royal Portrush.
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said Portrush had “lived up to its billing as being golf’s ‘Major golf capital of the world’”.
Neville Moore, proprietor of the White House department store in Portrush, predicted that the benefits of the Irish Open will be seen in the coming years.
“I’m a happy trader. But you can only measure the benefits of this event in terms of the next four years.”
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board invested £2m in the Irish Open and a spokeswoman said it had “delivered everything we had hoped for”.
“It will be a game changer in terms of global perception of Northern Ireland.”