Belfast Telegraph

North coast gears up for 190,000 at Open Championship

By Donna Deeney

The countdown is on to Northern Ireland's biggest ever sporting event - and the seaside town of Portrush is already abuzz with excitement.

In a year's time Royal Portrush Golf Club will host the 148th Open Championship, only the second time in the prestigious tournament's history it has been staged outside of Scotland or England.

That honour also fell to Royal Portrush in 1951, but next year's event will be on an altogether greater scale.

Around 190,000 people are expected to pack into the resort town for the tournament.

The club is preparing for huge crowds on each of the four days the event will run, as enthusiasts vie to catch a glimpse of golf's superstars.

Among them will be defending champion Francesco Molinari, who won this year's Open last week at Carnoustie. Also due to play at next year's event are Tiger Woods, Justin Day and Dustin Johnston, with local interest boosted by Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke.

While the competition is organised by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A), an army of volunteers recruited from other local golf clubs will make sure Portrush is very much at the heart of the tournament.

Already in the seaside town construction cranes are busy at work on new apartment blocks to be finished in time for The Open, and almost every 'For Sale' sign on a commercial or residential premises has been replaced by one stating 'Sold'.

Wilma Erskine, general manager of Royal Portrush since 1985, is clearly a steady pair of hands to help ensure the 2019 Open is a success.

No stranger to organising and making sure large golfing events at Royal Portrush run smoothly, she modestly insists it was "Team Portrush" that secured the Open for the north coast.

She said: "There is a lot of work to be done but a lot of work has been done. We have had to link in with PSNI, Translink, the local council, Tourism NI and we all work very well together.

"This is very much Team Portrush, in fact it's Team Northern Ireland because this isn't just for Portrush, it is for the whole of Northern Ireland.

"The R&A are a very professional outfit, they are doing this year in, year out and tickets for our event have already gone on sale. They have said that within 48 hours 20% were sold, and I believe that has gone up to 30% now.

"For the town of Portrush this will be a legacy for them. The people who come for The Open are true golf fans, they come for the day, they come for the experience. They will go to the shops before the golf and after the golf so the people in the town will have to work around the golf, maybe open earlier and stay open for longer.

"It's not the four days of the Open when they will make their money, it's the months before when the contractors are going to be moving in."

Anthony Newman, president of Causeway Coast Chamber of Commerce, said traders recognise the benefits from The Open being held in Portrush.

He said: "The effect on Portrush is already marked. When the Irish Open came there were derelict properties in Portrush but that isn't the case now.

"Looking at property prices across the borough there's been a rising tide and that's in both commercial and residential and it is radiating out from Portrush.

"There will be an estimated £100 million economic boost locally and traders are gearing up to make the most of that, although things are still at the planning stage.

"The Open is going to be the biggest tourist event in Northern Ireland for a long, long time so it's important they will want to come back here."

Drew McClean, manager of the local Spar, thinks that while the arrival of The Open in Portrush will be an incredible opportunity for traders, the rewards will be in the years beyond 2019.

He explained: "While The Open is here the people will be bussed in and bussed back out again, but the important thing is the television coverage which will showcase Portrush and people will want to come here."

Among those who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of golf fans from across the globe is Richard Connor, who owns the Causeway Sea Fishing Company.

He has already purchased a new vessel to keep up with the rising interest. He said: "We have had enquiries already from people who will be here during The Open who want to go out on the boats for recreational fishing.

"Tourism Ireland have a really good campaign going and we have picked up a lot of business through that.

"We have actually scaled up and bought another boat and have customised our business around The Open to include taking people out on the boat who will not necessarily be fishing.

"This is a golden opportunity which will put Portrush on the radar of so many people for years to come and you have to make the most of it."

At Royal Portrush the club's professional Gary McNeill is hoping he too will get a golden opportunity to play alongside some of his idols.

"This is the biggest, most exciting golfing tournament in the world and, as Darren Clarke said, winning the Claret Jug is the holy grail," he said.

"One of my responsibilities as club professional is to potentially play on the weekend if needed.

"If there is an odd number on Friday after the cut is made, as there has been for the past four years, the hosting club's professional has played as a marker.

"There is a 50/50 chance I will be needed, but if I am I have been putting in the extra hours of practice just in case."

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