Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Steven Beacom: Why The Open will come to Portrush

Padraig Harrington tees off at Royal Portrush in what has been a massively successful tournament

The Irish Open has been and gone. And boy didn't our wee country host it well.

Eyes are already turning to an even bigger prize — as they should be.

This ‘new' Northern Ireland we're living in has to keep striving for better, for more. The people deserve it.

And in golfing terms there is nothing greater than The Open Championship.

There's no doubt that the tournament, won so famously by iconic figures who transcend their sport like Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods, our own Fred Daly and of course modern day Ulster hero Darren Clarke, will be played here one day.

Following the monumental success of the last week, it is surely a question of when rather than if golf's most celebrated major is played in this small part of the world.

The Royal and Ancient — custodians of the game —will make the decision.

But they can't deny us now.

The R and A had observers at Royal Portrush in recent days and like everyone who set foot on the Dunluce Links they will have gone home mightily impressed.

While a feelgood factor has oozed out of the fairways, and much pleasure and pride can be taken from how everyone enjoyed the event, there will be relief too.

After all, the pressure was on for those involved in putting the 2012 Irish Open together.

In the build-up to the event, there was a sense that this was an audition for the starring role.

The course, the club itself and the infrastructure were all under scrutiny.

Northern Ireland being Northern Ireland and not a nation filled with people given to idle boasts — we are the kings of self-depreciation — one question hung around like a dark cloud.

Could we actually cope with it all?

That cloud has gone, replaced by the brightest sky.

Cope? Not only did Royal Portrush Golf Club cope, it put on arguably the greatest golfing show ever held on the European continent.

Along with the European Tour, they organised the tournament to a tee.

The test has not just been passed — it has been passed with flying colours. It's as if all those with a piece of this particular pie have gone out on to the 7,143 yard course and hit a 59.

Welshman Jamie Donaldson may have lifted the trophy, but so many others deserved prizes such as Royal Portrush, the European Tour, the scores and scores of volunteers, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, our politicians up in Stormont who provided such strong backing for the event and of course the brilliant spectators, rubbing their eyes in disbelief that they were watching golfing greats like Darren, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, John Daly and Jose Maria Olazabal in their own backyard.

The galleries were magnificent, hugely supportive of their own and generous to a fault with those from further afield.

The numbers that turned up were extraordinary as the public embraced the tournament like no other in the long history of the European Tour.

Let's rejoice in the fact that this year's Irish Open was the first European Tour event ever to sell out for all FOUR rounds.

By the end of day three more people had paid into Portrush than attended all of the Irish Open in Killarney a couple of years ago.

In total 112,280 paying customers entered the gates over the four tournament days with over 30,000 stomping around the course during the final two rounds.

Add in a remarkable 4,280 for the first official practice on Tuesday and 14,225 for Wednesday's Pro-Am and 130,785 parted with cash to see the biggest sporting event ever staged in the province.

Throw in members, juniors and guests who didn't pay in and the figures here have probably approached 150,000.

That's what you call support, which was hugely appreciated by the players, who all felt they were playing in a major.

Don't worry boys, those of you still around in several years time, will get the opportunity to do it officially once the Royal and Ancient give the go ahead.

Essentially the R and A's aim is to sustain and grow the game of golf.

They do that with the profits generated at The Open, so like in every sport cold hard cash plays a part in decision making.

Obviously they would not make the money that comes from holding it at St Andrews which can total 200,000 fans, but remember Turnberry in 2009 brought in a crowd of 123,000.

With sensible long term planning and further improvements to the infrastructure there is every chance that Portrush could, with the approval of Health and Safety Chiefs, pitch somewhere in the middle.

Other issues such as corporate, logistics including accommodation and transport for the golfers, as well as politics will come in to play.

As Open champion Clarke, hitting straight down the middle, insisted last week getting the multi-million pound Bushmills course and luxury hotel up and running would be a major help.

The National Trust have put a block on the project, though Clarke, like many others, is hopeful that they will “soon come to their senses”.

Changes would have to be made to the course but again given time and the help and advice of the R and A these could be handled with all the aplomb of McIlroy or McDowell escaping from a greenside bunker.

There's been talk of The Open arriving here as soon as 2018, but seasoned golf observers feel the treasure won't come to these shores that early.

I quite fancy 2021 myself as that would be 70 years since the last time The Open was played here in 1951.

When the Claret Jug is up for grabs over here it's likely the par four 16th will become the final hole as there is space around the green for more and bigger grandstands to be located.

Others in the know will tell you that par will be 70 rather than the 72 it has been this time around with the par five holes at nine and 10 becoming punishing par fours.

Whatever, it can be done and will be done.

The Irish Open will of course return to the north coast.

And The Open Championship will be played here in the future too. Royal Portrush and the good folk of Northern Ireland deserve it — and after the last seven days, they've earned it.