Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Changes could put Royal Portrush on Open rota: Course faces major change

Open case: Darren Clarke has been pushing Portrush’s credentials
Open case: Darren Clarke has been pushing Portrush’s credentials

Royal Portrush WILL host The Open golf championship within the next five years.

Weekend reports of an impending announcement of the award were premature – tournament organisers responding that 'some distance' remained from being able to stage The Open in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

But it can now be revealed the note of caution was sounded so as not to compromise delicate negotiations involving changes to the famous old course and requiring consent of the Royal Portrush club membership.

Negotiations involving the Stormont Executive and R&A organisers are at an advanced stage, and not only to stage the Open at Royal Portush in five year's time.

Pending the undoubted success of that venture, it's understood the famed Dunluce Links will be added to the official rota of venues for golf's oldest Major.

That means The Open will return on a regular basis. But those changes to the course are crucial as Portrush native and Major winner Graeme McDowell  alluded to in his response to the possibility.

"It's been a long road and, to be honest, I don't want to say too much until it is official, for fear of tempting fate," said McDowell, whose brother Gary is on the greenkeeping staff at Portrush.

"But it would be awesome to have the Open back there, wouldn't it? It needs some changes and a little length, but it will be a solid Open venue."

Open winner Darren Clarke, who has a house overlooking the links, has been gently lobbying Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club for years and said: “I think everyone knows my views on the possibility of getting The Open back to Portrush. There’s no question the course is good enough.’

The changes which must be made at Portrush to accommodate an event on such a vast scale are so great, they'll be permanent.

And all sides in the talks accept that it'll take more than one 'hit' to justify the inconvenience and expense involved.

In reality, before any sweeping changes can be made to the links, they must be approved by the members of Royal Portrush at an Emergency General Meeting.

And an EGM, which requires two weeks' notice, will only be called in the event of an invitation from the Royal and Ancient to host the Open. Negotiations have been wide-ranging, detailed and supposedly have proceeded smoothly, but they've yet to reach that formal stage.

It's quite a liberty to suppose members of Royal Portrush will row in with the proposals without very careful consideration. After all, this represents a crossroads in the club's history.

Changes include the building of two new finishing holes. After 16, the new 17th will sweep into the adjacent Valley Course, with the 18th heading back towards the clubhouse.

Unlike the current closing hole, there'll be enough room around its successor to install the massive grandstands, which are a feature of every Open.

The space left by the current 17th and 18th will be used for extensive corporate areas and the Open Village during the championship and be incorporated into the Valley Course on a permanent basis thereafter.

English architect Martin Ebert, whose firm Mackenzie and Ebert carried out renovations on Turnberry, Sandwich and Lytham and are remodelling Troon for the 2016 Open, is expected to design and build the new holes and conduct any other changes to the links.

Purists inevitably will suggest the Open should be moulded to fit a classic venue like Portrush in the way that the US Open squeezed into tight confines at Merion last summer.

Yet, unlike the massively well-resourced USGA, who could afford to take a financial 'hit' in the name of history at Merion, income generated by The Open is critical to the R&A's worldwide commitment to develop and nurture golf and therefore must be maximised. The transformation of Royal Portrush into an Open venue will come at a price, but will bring massive prestige and the promise of green fee income far in excess of already significant profits stirred by the spectacularly successful 2012 Irish Open.

In return, Portrush will freshen up an Open rota which includes St Andrews, Muirfield, Royal St George's, Royal Lytham, Royal Birkdale, Royal Troon, Carnoustie, Turnberry and this year's venue Royal Liverpool.

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