Tourism boss hails support for golf
A bumper sell-out crowd at the Irish Open at Royal County Down has vindicated the decision to bring the Open Championship back to Northern Ireland, a tourism chief has insisted.
After the first of four 18,000 plus capacity sold out days at the famous seaside course, Kathryn Thomson, the chief operating officer at Tourism Northern Ireland, said the region had copper fastened a reputation for hosting big sporting events.
The success of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush in 2012, which was the first sell out in the history of the European Tour, helped convince the organisers of the Open Championship to bring it back to Northern Ireland after more than a 60 year absence.
The Royal and Ancient is set to bring its Major tournament to Portrush in 2019.
"I think after we hosted the Irish Open in 2012 up at Royal Portrush and made history by becoming the European Tour's first sell out everybody said we couldn't do it again," said Ms Thomson.
"At that time the Royal and Ancient came in and did some mystery shopping behind the scenes and when they saw the success they knew they were left with no choice other than to consider it as an Open venue.
"Now we have made history again this year and have taken the event to a whole new level. So I think the R&A will now be very happy with their decision to bring the Open back."
On the course today there was disappointment for local hero and tournament host Rory McIlroy, who endured a nightmare start with an opening round of nine over par.
But there were at least some Irish eyes smiling with Padraig Harrington rolling back the years to shoot a four under par 67.
Crowds thronged the fairways to follow the home favourites as well as world stars such Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, Rickie Fowler and Martin Kaymer.
While a couple of violent rain showers forced the umbrellas up, in the main the patrons were rewarded with plenty of sunshine.
Tourism bosses have also been pleased at the somewhat different make up of this year's crowd.
Unlike three years ago, when around 90% of the crowd was from Northern Ireland, this time a third of tickets have been bought by golf fans living outside the region, with 28% travelling from south of the border.