Northern Ireland so close to staging the Open
The Open Championship is now tantalisingly close to a return to Northern Ireland following yesterday's confirmation that the Irish Open will be played at Royal County Down next year and Lough Erne Resort in 2017.
The Open was last played here in 1951 – at Royal Portrush, which would again play host – and First Minister Peter Robinson yesterday revealed that negotiations to stage the tournament are at an advanced stage.
It would be an appropriate time for the biggest tournament of the lot to come to these shores, with Ulster golfers blazing a trail on the world stage.
Since 2010, Rory McIlroy has won the US Open and USPGA, Darren Clarke lifted the Open and Graeme McDowell was our first Major winner – the US Open in 2010 – since Fred Daly's Open triumph way back in 1947.
"We would be keen to see the tournament played in Northern Ireland," said the First Minister.
"Although we may have some infrastructure issues, we believe we have the necessary facilities."
The First Minister was speaking Royal County Down at the announcement that the Irish Open is coming to the Newcastle course next year and the Lough Erne Resort in Fermanagh in 2017. This summer's host, Fota Island in Cork, is tipped to stage the tournament in 2016.
And European Tour Chief Executive George O'Grady revealed that double Major winner McIlroy had played a key role in the Irish Open coming back to Northern Ireland so soon, adding that the success of the 2012 Irish Open was a boost to hopes of the Open coming here, 2019 the earliest potential date.
"I had a chat with Rory and he said if we could get the Irish Open back it would be another fantastic tournament.
"And the 2012 Irish Open certainly highlighted the potential of Royal Portrush," he said.
Royal Portrush attracted record crowds for a European Tour event – it was the first time the Irish Open had been staged in Northern Ireland since 1953 – leading to louder calls for the Open itself to come back to Northern Ireland.
Sporting superstar McIlroy yesterday voiced his approval of Royal County Down and Lough Erne Resort as Irish Open hosts.
"It's great that the Irish Open is coming to Royal County Down next year. I have fond memories of playing there in the 2007 Walker Cup," said McIlroy.
"Royal County Down is a great links course, which I know particularly well, so I'm delighted to have the opportunity to play an Irish Open there.
"We all thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing an Irish Open in Northern Ireland two years ago so it is fantastic news that we will have another chance in 2015 and again in 2017.
"I'm sure the fans will come out and support us again and make it another week to remember. I'm really looking forward to teeing it up in both tournaments," added McIlroy.
Portrush native McDowell, too, is relishing the opportunity to go for glory on home soil.
"It's great that the Irish Open is coming in 2015 and 2017. There are few better golf courses in the world than Royal County Down.
"The 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush really put Northern Ireland on the golfing map."
And having staged the G8 summit with such success last summer, Lough Erne Resort promises to be a stunning Irish Open venue.
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said: "Having already played host to the world's most powerful leaders, it will now host some of the world's greatest golfers."