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Irish Open coming to Royal Portrush

Royal Portrush will stage the Irish Open in 2013 - a prelude to hosting The Open itself.

A pledge to bring a European Tour tournament to Northern Ireland is one of more than 70 commitments made in the Stormont Executive's Programme for Government, published yesterday.

It is thought the Irish Open will now be played here on a regular basis; at least every five years.

Northern Ireland golf is currently on an all-time high with two of the four Major champions — Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy — hailing from these shores.

Portrush ace Graeme McDowell started the Major ball rolling by winning the US Open last year.

That was the first Major win by an Ulsterman since Fred Daly triumphed in The Open back in 1947.

McIlroy, currently world number two, followed in McDowell’s footsteps by winning this year’s US Open before Clarke’s emotional Open success at Sandwich.

The only time The Open has been played in Northern Ireland was at Royal Portrush in 1951.

The Irish Open is expected to provide a showcase for a possible bid to host The Open.

Clarke and McDowell, who both have strong links with the North Coast, have already agreed to act as ambassadors for Royal Portrush, which will celebrate its 125th anniversary in 2013.

Soon after Clarke's Open triumph in July the Stormont Executive indicated that it would provide “substantial backing” for a European Tour event to be played at the venue.

This is now set to come to pass — with The Open also a distinct possibility.

Arguments against The Open returning to Royal Portrush have included lack of infrastructure and shortage of accommodation.

But Open champion Clarke, whose home overlooks the course, is convinced Royal Portrush could stage what is one of the premier events in world sport.

“I’ve played on courses all over the world and Royal Portrush is among the very best. It presents a very demanding challenge,” said Clarke.

“I’ve no doubt Royal Portrush could stage The Open.”

Last year’s Irish Open was played at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club — without a conventional sponsor. The tournament, won by England’s Simon Dyson, was presented by Discover Ireland.

An Irish Open at Royal Portrush would already be assured the backing of the Stormont Executive.

On top of that, the lure of Clarke, McIlroy and McDowell competing on their own doorstep — and the publicity and crowds that would generate — would have top of the range sponsors queuing up to bankroll the tournament, even in these extremely challenging economic times.

The recent success of Ulster golfers has been phenomenal.

Within minutes of Clarke's Open win McIlrory wrote on Twitter that the province was now the “world capital of golf”.

Even outside the ‘Big Three’ of Clarke, McIlroy and McDowell, rising stars Michael Hoey and Gareth Maybin have been making a huge impact in the professional ranks.

Hoey in particular has had an outstanding season, highlighted by his victory in the Dunhill Links Championship and a winner’s cheque for over half-a-million pounds.

But, at just 22, McIlroy has been elevated to the status of global superstar.

The Holywood golfer and his new girlfriend, world number one tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, are now among the most famous couples on the planet.

The presence of the couple at Royal Portrush for the Irish Open would see a stampede for tickets and worldwide television coverage.

The Stormont Executive are aware that now is the time to turn Ulster’s golfing success into a tangible legacy.

That can be secured by Royal Portrush joining the rota for the Irish Open and then The Open.

There are truly exciting times for golf — and sport — in Northern Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph