Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Royal Portrush braced for drastic change ahead of hosting the Open

Daunting task: Big Nellie is a feared bunker on the Royal Portrush course but it may disappear when changes are required

The Royal and Ancient will formally invite Royal Portrush to join the Open Championship rota today.

And details of the plans to bring the Championship back to Northern Ireland for the first time in half a century will be unveiled.

But although the news has been welcomed in most quarters – from Major winners Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell to government ministers – it will be the club's members which will ultimately decide if the Open is to go ahead in 2019.

Local golf fans might expect that they will jump at the chance and simply rubber-stamp the decision, but given that the R&A will insist on a fairly extensive renovation of the course, it might not be quite so simple.

The sticking point is the likely demand for the reconfiguration of the 17th and 18th holes which would need to be made to accommodate the familiar grandstands which line both sides of the fairway and surround the green on the closing hole during the Championship.

At the moment, there simply isn't room for them and the R&A's proposal is for Royal Portrush to construct two entirely new holes incorporating some of the Valley course adjacent to the Dunluce links.

And unless the club has a cunning plan up its sleeve, that could spell the end for one of the course's defining features – the Big Nellie bunker which dominates the view from the 17th tee.

Former US PGA champion Keegan Bradley was so taken with it during the 2012 Irish Open, he tweeted a picture of himself standing in it to his thousands of followers.

The demise of the 18th might not be such an issue. Links Golf magazine once included it in a list of terrible holes on great courses. But the principle remains for many of the members and there would be outcry at Muirfield or St Andrews if similar demands for such sweeping alterations was made.

The R&A encountered a similar problem when it brought the Open back to Hoylake – the venue again next month – in 2006 for the first time in 50 years.

On that occasion, Royal Liverpool was able to switch the order of the holes for the Championship, making it a simple matter to revert back once all the grandstands had been packed away.

The successful staging of the Irish Open two summers ago was undoubtedly the turning point in persuading the R&A to seriously consider bringing the Open back to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

But the demands of a modern major – arguably the biggest tournament in the world – are significantly greater.

The tented village alone would need to be around five times the size of the one put together in 2012 – and the present 17th and 18th holes would appear to be the preferred location for that.

The television compound for the live broadcasts around the world is another major consideration. For the Irish Open only Sky needed to be accommodated.

The likelihood is that despite these difficulties, the Open will go ahead as planned five years' time even if there is a bitter pill or two for the members to swallow before then.

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