Could Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush host the Open Championship?
Tourist chiefs bid to capitalise on sporting victories
Times are tough. But, after another Major golf victory - the third in 13 months - Northern Ireland's flagging tourism industry now has an unprecedented opportunity to capitalise on the current international focus on golf.
Calls for the Open to be held at Royal Portrush have been gaining momentum with politicians, tourism chiefs, hoteliers and the golfing fraternity all championing Ulster as a destination for the British national championship.
"It is really about maximising the momentum," said Tourism Minister Arlene Foster. "The three guys, Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell have given us a unique opportunity and we need to grasp it now.
"Tourism Ireland, the Tourist Board and my own department need to push ahead working with the other golf clubs around Northern Ireland - not just Royal Portrush and Royal County Down but also others like those where Darren Clarke started his career."
Clarke's victory at Sandwich comes on the heels of consecutive US Open successes for Portrush-born Graeme McDowell and Holywood's Rory McIlroy.
Currently, golf tourism contributes £13-£14m to the local economy but industry insiders say hosting a Major could enhance that sum to around £90m.
"Golf tourism is huge," added the minister. "Particularly the US market. When they come and visit they actually spend more money than ordinary tourists so they tick all my boxes."
DETI officials are currently in negotiations about bringing the Open to Northern Ireland but with the next available date not likely to be until 2016, Ms Foster said hosting another event like the Irish Open would be a successful "interim" option.
Meanwhile, Tourism Ireland has said they are "working hard" to promote Northern Ireland as the "Home of Champions" and have launched an £18m campaign within key markets in UK, USA, Germany and Sweden. Advertisements have also been taken out in the US-based Golf Week and Golf World magazines as well as editorials in the Irish Echo and Irish Voice newspapers.
"This victory has placed golf in Northern Ireland, once more, to the forefront of everyone's mind," said chief executive Niall Gibbons. "Tourism Ireland is working hard to capitalise on this in GB, the US and in our other golf markets around the world."
Hoteliers have also echoed calls for Northern Ireland to cash in on the latest golfing coup.
"We hope that now, with Darren's success, it will put the spotlight on the possibility of bringing a major international golfing tournament to Northern Ireland," said Jonathan Stapleton, general manager at the Co Fermanagh resort.
George Graham, general manager with Radisson Roe Resort in Limavady, added: "The publicity generated by Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell has been priceless."
Yesterday Darren Clarke hailed Portrush as "every bit as good as any Open venue that's on the rota right now".
And, after a meeting with the R&A chief executive Peter Dawson, the possibility of the Open being staged in Co Antrim moved a step closer.
"I think we're all very aware that three winners from Northern Ireland increases the level of interest and we have said we'll take a closer look at Portrush," Mr Dawson said.
Six compelling reasons why Royal Portrush can host the Open
Royal Portrush's famous Dunluce Links ranks among the world's greatest courses.
Voted 12th in the world by Golf Magazine, it boasts spectacular views of the north coast, with parts of the course overlooking White Rocks beach as well as Dunluce Castle (right).
Designed by Harry Colt, the newly extended 7,200- yard course couples its demanding greens with the unpredictable weather of the north coast, giving it a reputation as a test for even the most seasoned golfer. Among its most challenging holes is the par three 14th, nicknamed Calamity Corner. To make the shot, golfers must clear a yawning chasm between the tee and the green.
David Jones, a former golf professional who now designs courses, said the Dunluce Links were "up there with the best of them".
"It's generally accepted amongst players on tour, and some of the all-time greats like Nicklaus and Watson, they have all expressed that view," he said. "There's no issues as far as the course is concerned. I don't think the course has any failings."
Wilma Erskine, secretary manager at Royal Portrush, said: "We have done a lot of work on the course over the year - extending the link, making improvements, irrigation, clubhouse improvements - so we are quite eager to have a European tour event which would ultimately lead to the goal of an Open. "We can do it, we are prepared, so it's up to the R&A to make a decision."
And it wouldn't be the first time the course has played host to an Open - the tournament was held at the club in 1951, the only place outside of England and Scotland to host one in its 151-year history.
MUCH has been said about the infrastructure around Portrush and whether it could cope with the tens of thousands of spectators and media which would pour into Northern Ireland if an Open were to take place here.
Critics have questioned our public transport services and road systems, but supporters say Portrush is no worse than some of the towns around other Open venues.
At Royal St George's over the weekend, there was joking among commentators that they needed to use SatNav equipment to find the course because it was in such a remote location.
Places like St Andrew's, Carnoustie and Muirfield are also small, coastal locations and they deal with the influx of visitors perfectly well.
And with the newly upgraded M2, Belfast is only one hour away, so visitors flying or sailing into the city do not have long to travel to reach their destination.
From Londonderry, Portrush is also only around one hour away, and regular bus and train services operate from both cities to the seaside town.
A Translink spokesperson said it would be prepared to offer additional transport options to ensure the safe arrival of potential visitors.
She said the company would "work with other tournament partners to determine the potential demand for transport packages and examine the possibility of running additional services to and from Portrush to accommodate any increased passenger demand".
Similarly a Roads Service spokeswoman said there should be no reason why the network couldn't cope with the visitors, given other major events in the area each year.
"There are a number of high-profile events which occur on the north coast each year, the North West 200 and the Portrush Airshow," she said. "The current road network manages to cope with these large visitor numbers. For any event, the organisers will prepare an event plan to cover all appropriate areas, including traffic management and transportation."
This has been a major area of focus for detractors of hosting an Open in the area. Many point to the fact that Portrush does not have adequate hotel provision to house the 40,000 people which are estimated to attend an Open tournament each day.
Visitors may have to stay in Derry or Belfast and travel to and from the venue every day. But this is not unusual for Open tournaments - many people attending Royal St George's at the weekend stayed in London, taking the two-hour train journey to the town; when the Open is held at St Andrew's spectators may stay in Edinburgh, Dundee or Stirling to ensure they catch the event.
And Portrush and its surrounding area play host to over 100,000 visitors every year for the annual North West 200 event without any major issues. Sir William Hastings, chairman of Hastings Hotels, said accommodation would be "easily accessible from Belfast and the whole of Co Antrim".
"Portrush would have at least six years' advance notice to create car parking, and a suitable tented village area," he said. "Many golf Open courses in the past have had much less to offer."
Wilma Erskine agreed, saying the Portrush course wasn't any worse off than other Open venues. "People talk about infrastructure, but if you look at Royal St George's their infrastructure is very poor, and Carnoustie is the same and so is Muirfield," she said.
"We have got Belfast, Derry and Ballymena with hotels which are a good standard, a good road system in and out of the town, plenty of space, so we can do it, but it's up to The R&A to assess and decide."
A golf club which hosts an Open Championship must be able to cope with the huge influx of spectators, fans and media from around the world which descend on the course to catch a glimpse of their favourite players.
It was estimated Royal St George's welcomed around 40,000 people on its busiest day of the Open last weekend, so does Royal Portrush have the capacity to accommodate such crowds?
David Jones, golf architect, says it shouldn't be a problem. "The course itself is quite capable," he said. "You have the Valley Links course so all the infrastructure could go in there - catering, merchandise, Press, car parking, television, all that sort of thing.
"It's fairly tight in places for the circulation of spectators but not more so than Royal Lytham, which is where the Open is next year; it's in the middle of a town, or even Turnberry. It's nothing I think that can't be dealt with. There's a lot of fields over the road, I'm sure there's farmers there who might be delighted to get a bit of a premium for renting their fields."
And he said the club house is also a perfect venue for hosting international visitors.
Our three golfing stars have put Northern Ireland on the map for all the right reasons with their Major wins over the last 14 months.
All three - Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy - have backed calls for an Open to be held at Royal Portrush, with Clarke yesterday expressing his desire to see the tournament come to his adopted home town. He said the course "is every bit as good as any of the Open venues", and said he hoped the R&A would "figure a way around the logistics". The coastal golf course can also boast of having Open winners Clarke and McDowell among its members. And McIlroy has also been known to take in a round at the course, having shot a record of 61 there when he was just 16. Tourism Minister Arlene Foster has also given her backing to the campaign to bring an Open Championship here.
It's the big issue which looms over all events in Northern Ireland, and according to some, threatens our chances of hosting a Major tournament.
Who can forget the scenes which followed Rory McIlroy's US Open win, as the triumphant headlines and glowing reports quickly changed to ones about street riots, guns and sectarian violence?
The increased dissident republican threat and the growing loyalist unease are all going against the cross-community support our golfing stars have generated for the sport. Wilma Erskine of Royal Portrush claims Northern Ireland is a changed place and that people wouldn't think twice about coming here.
But David Jones says that there is still a long way to go before the Open organisers could throw their full backing behind a championship in Northern Ireland.
"We all think we're there (a peaceful society) but there's still question marks, and you can't have an Open unless all the greats are going to be happy with the idea of turning up in July in Northern Ireland," he said.
Teeing up for visitors with fresh advertising campaign
By Ruth Burns, Northern Ireland Tourist Board
We are capitalising on our world class golfers' success and we believe it is helping to position Northern Ireland as a must-see destination.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has just launched an advertising campaign which encourages people to play in the land of the golfing giants.
The campaign posters highlight the two US Open successes, but these will be amended to also feature Darren Clarke's marvellous Open victory.
The posters can now be seen right across Northern Ireland, including Belfast International Airport, and we have a considerable presence in Dublin Airport with advertising panels which will also feature our three golfing greats.
As a result of the posters at Dublin Airport, a large number of tourists have been visiting our Tourist Information Centre in Dublin to learn more about Northern Ireland.
NITB has also introduced a Golf Quality and Assurance Scheme to set quality standards for golf clubs to ensure they are delivering high-quality services and facilities for visitors.
To date, 16 golf courses here have received accreditation.