The Open at Royal Portrush 2019: Darren Clarke hails return of championship
Overjoyed Darren Clarke hailed the day he never believed he would see in his lifetime with confirmation that The Open golf championship will return to Northern Ireland and his home course of Royal Portrush in 2019.
The 2011 winner described yesterday's announcement as a brilliant day for everyone in Northern Ireland.
The 2019 Open will be played at the famous old north coast course over the weekend of July 18-21 that year, generating up to £70 million for the economy here in general and locally in particular.
Clarke was in attendance as the golfing figurehead of an historic occasion, 64 years on from The Open was last staged here at the same venue in 1951.
And there was genuine emotion in the voice of the European Ryder Cup captain as he said: "I played a lot of my golf here, I lived here and was a proud member here, but to think would we ever get through the dark times Northern Ireland has had, to get to this stage where we have the biggest and best tournament in the world, I'd be very foolish to say yes, it would have happened.
"Nobody could foresee that coming through in the bad old days, but to see how far we have all come, how far our politicians have moved this part of the country on, it's been brilliant."
Clarke declared himself hugely impressed with the planned changes to the course layout which are necessary for the club to be able to host an Open.
They include replacing the existing 17th and 18th holes with completely new holes built on the current Valley links layout.
The revamped Royal Portrush course will not be 'Rory-proofed' for the 2019 Open but Darren Clarke warned that McIlroy would have to play sensational golf to shoot 61 on the Dunluce Links again.
Clarke, when reminded that McIlroy shot 61 in qualifying for the North of Ireland amateur in 2005, grinned and said: "Rory has done and will do anything. But it will be a very good 61."
Work is in progress on altering the Dunluce layout, lengthening it by 200 yards to 7,337 yards for the Open. The current 17th and 18th holes will be taken out to make room for the Spectator Village and event infrastructure.
Land from the Valley course is being used to create new seventh and eighth holes, while other changes are being undertaken by golf course architect Martin Ebert to enhance the challenge for the world's best golfers.
Ebert's task is to develop the basic layout designed originally by Harry Colt while remaining true to the majestic duneland and quality of the land on which the Portrush links is situated.
Three new bunkers will be added, bringing the total to 62, leaving Royal Portrush with the fewest amount of bunkers of any of the nine courses currently on the Open rota.
Darren Clarke approves of Ebert's concepts and alterations.
"Whenever I went round with Martin and he explained them to me, I could really understand them. Then the more I looked at them, I thought, 'That's going to make this even better.'
"There is a difference between making it better and making it tougher. He is making it better."
Irrespective of the wind and weather factors, the 2011 Open champion is adamant that whoever wins in 2019 will earn their title the hard way.
"I think this one is tighter than many other Open championship venues. You stand on the ninth the out there and you have got to hit the fairway, that is a big ask.
"The 16th tee is a big ask. The penalty for missing greens around here is huge.
"There is pressure on your tee-shots and there is pressure on your second shots because old Harry Colt used the natural contours and built the greens into what was there.
"You don't see a lot of that these days. The course is very demanding from tee to green. What is it now, 12th in the world? If it's not ranked amongst the top five in the world after these changes, I will be amazed because this is as fair a links course as you will ever play," he said.
Portrush has not hosted a major championship since the 1951 Open won by Max Faulkner, but the Irish Open drew massive crowds in 2012,