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Unlikely dream becomes reality when The Open returns to Royal Portrush ... but how did it happen?

Tom Kershaw reveals the untold story of how Northern Ireland won the Open, spurred on by the Major wins of Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy and united political support

Darren Clarke at the announcement that The Open would be held at Royal Portrush in 2019
Darren Clarke at the announcement that The Open would be held at Royal Portrush in 2019
Wilma Erskine, secretary of Royal Portrush Golf Club
Rory tees off during practice at the course yesterday
Max Faulkner, winner of the 1951 Open at Royal Portrush
Major winners Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke in Portrush

By Tom Kershaw

July 19, 2011: with valleys under his eyes betraying the previous night's sleepless pandemonium, Darren Clarke strolled out onto the 18th green at Royal Portrush Golf Club with reddened cheeks reflected in the Claret Jug and a grin that stretched halfway back to Sandwich.

Forty-eight hours after his improbable Open Championship win, aged 42, this was the "homecoming" leg of Clarke's lavishly inebriated victory lap and a cramped mass of almost 1,000 local fans crooned and hoisted any debris worthy of signature in his direction.

"This is the best golf course in the world," Clarke declared. "This golf course is fit to hold any competition in the world." Little could Clarke have imagined that the miracle behind The Open's return would become something that transcended sport entirely.

This isn't the first time an Open Championship has arrived in Royal Portrush. When Max Faulkner, the equally well-liquored enigma from Bexhill-on-Sea won golf's oldest major in 1951, after a winter spent milking cows to strengthen his palms, it was the first time the tournament had left England and Scotland.

A remote, idyllic sanctuary built across a mile-long peninsula in north Antrim surrounded by an unfurling labyrinth of dunes, Portrush's revered Dunluce Links was supposed to become a cherished staple of the Open rota.

But as Northern Ireland was consumed by sectarian civil war, blockaded by border checks, with bombs erupting on a near day-by-day basis, the holy grail of tourism was swept into a doldrum by the pall cast over the country.

In 1985, nine years after a series of bombs burnt buildings along the main street, two years before a pair of patrolling RUC officers were shot on the same cobblestones, only one American three-ball dared make the transatlantic visit to the course. The fifth green was in danger of being swallowed by the Irish Sea and the club took in just £35,000 for the entire year.

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The prospect of any major sporting event returning to Northern Ireland, let alone a high-profile golf event to the diminutive town, was obsolete.

As Clarke paraded the Claret Jug around Portrush, three separate groups of schemers watched fancifully from the fringes. The most ubiquitous of the trio featured Graeme McDowell and a still youthfully chubby-cheeked Rory McIlroy. Back-to-back US Open winners in 2009 and 2010, McDowell was born and raised in the town, while McIlroy was taught on its links and propelled to stardom when he famously broke the course record with a 61 while just 15 years old. Together, they carried a swaying power impossible to silence.

The second group contained Portrush's three-person sub-committee. Wilma Erskine, the club's fiercely determined secretary, its chairman, John Bamber, and its captain, Philip Tweedie, had already spent the past two years envisioning a strategy to bring The Open back to Northern Ireland.

And, right at the back, shielded from the mayhem, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness soaked in the strange scene. It was the Sinn Fein leader and former IRA commander's first visit to the town and first time ever setting foot in a royal club. Alongside him, First Minister Peter Robinson and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment Arlene Foster, beamed in a rare picture of partisan politics standing arm-in-arm.

"Martin McGuinness came up to Portrush on a number of occasions," Mrs Foster relates. "Being a divided society, you can only deliver an event of this scale if you have the support of everyone."

"He realised bringing The Open to Portrush wasn't about golf at all," adds Mairtin O'Muilleoir, one of the late politician's confidantes who was frequently dispatched to the town on his behalf. "The real prize was trying to create a reconciled, peaceful country and show the world this is a place which can be transformed."

Three years before the Good Friday agreement of 1998 was signed, with the embers of tribal tension flickering and the emergence of a fragile peace, Wilma persuaded the R&A to bring the Senior Open Championship back to Portrush and a sleeping giant was reawakened.

Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Gary Player all left singing songs of virtue but, to take the first stride towards The Open's return, the committee couldn't just rely on the pulling-power of Clarke, McDowell and McIlroy, they needed hard evidence.

Since the height of The Troubles, the Irish Open had been played exclusively in the Republic. But with the economy strangled by the aftershocks of civil war, business interest sparse and the number of high-profile sponsors dwindling, the Irish government were hesitant to finance the tournament.

Sensing opportunity, Wilma tentatively approached the European Tour, IMG and the R&A to ask what it would take to bring the Irish Open back up north. "Come back to us when you have something close to £1.5m-£2m," came the response.

Without the support of banks or business, the committee reintroduced themselves to the politicians who'd lined the fairway on that blustery July day. And, in a room of Portrush's clubhouse, Wilma laid out her plan to Arlene Foster and representatives of north Antrim and explained the benefits the Irish Open could bring not only to the club but the country. "She was very positive about the idea," Wilma says. "She told us to go forward and go get that event."

Both strong-willed leaders, Wilma and Arlene Foster struck up a shared respect that would become a driving force behind The Open's return for nearly a decade. "Wilma is very much like myself," Mrs Foster says with admiration. "If she decides she's going to put her hand at something, she goes for it. I believed it was possible because there was a real determination to deliver it. The partnership that developed between Portrush and my department was very strong."

With Foster's backing, David Sterling, now head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, brought together the Northern Ireland Tourism Board and all the necessary government agencies required to put on an event of the Irish Open's magnitude.

"A lot of people would've said there was no chance of getting the Irish Open back north," Sterling says. "At the time, the people who were saying that were probably quite right. I always thought it was a huge stretch and, frankly, I doubted if we'd be able to do so."

The committee had gained the support and financial backing of the Executive, but the European Tour was still wary of any possible political repercussions from bringing the event back to Northern Ireland for the first time in 65 years.

So, Erskine and Bamber journeyed to Dublin with their proposal and refused to leave without a signature. Without money for argument, Taoiseach Enda Kenny grudgingly obliged.

The week before Christmas, the committee received confirmation from the European Tour that the 2012 Irish Open would be staged at Royal Portrush. "We were euphoric," Bamber gushes. "But after someone cracked open a glass of something bubbly, it dawned on us: we only had six months to put this event on."

Billowing storms and a thick coat of clouds left the Dunluce Links sodden and the 2012 Irish Open wrapped in an overcast glare, but the tournament's return to Northern Ireland was an indisputably beaming success. Clarke, McIlroy and McDowell played megaphoned maitre d's and effused praise down the barrel of every mic and lens.

It became the first regular European Tour to ever sell out - in total, 126,505 people attended during tournament week - and that figure that has not come remotely close to being surpassed since.

"The Irish Open was a huge success," Mrs Foster says. "It sold out despite the weather and all the logistics worked very well, from policing to transport to the local council.

"I think some people at the R&A had a disbelief we could deliver. The fact it went so well gave us the evidence base to make the step forward and try to host The Open again."

"There was a really strong bond behind the tournament between all the government parties," Sterling adds.

"Everyone recognised how important this would be, not just economically or for tourism, but politically.

"It was the sign of a new and more confident Northern Ireland and that's when the R&A really started to take the idea of bringing back The Open seriously."

After the tournament, Mrs Foster and Wilma invited the head of the R&A, Peter Dawson, for a meeting at Portrush. Initially, doubts still lingered over whether the town could feasibly shoulder the weight of an Open Championship.

But, once Dawson arrived, he was "terrifically positive and very determined", Bamber says.

"But he said 'if you're going to host The Open, you're going to have to change the Dunluce Links in a significant way.

"At that point, I've got to be honest, I thought it was a bridge too far."

The R&A had given Portrush provisional approval to host the 2019 Open Championship, but only on the condition that the course was reconfigured so there was space for a looming amphitheatre of a grandstand surrounding the 18th green as well as a sprawling commercial tented village.

In October 2014, the club's members gathered to hear the proposal. Two holes from the neighbouring Valley Links would be absorbed into the course as the 6th and 7th holes, while the old 17th and 18th - a flat and anticlimactic blemish on an otherwise spotless track - would be discarded. Further subtle alterations would have to be made to "virtually every single hole" to stretch its sinew to measure well over 7,000 yards.

From members to sponsor, stakeholders and officials, so many people descended on the clubhouse for the meeting that it was moved at the last moment to a nearby hotel.

"If you'd asked me a few days before how it would pan out, I'd have been very pleased with two-thirds in favour," Bamber says.

Instead, a unanimous sea of arms were raised in approval.

After over half a decade of legwork and over half-a-century of waiting, The Open was officially returning to Royal Portrush.

Belfast Telegraph


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