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Irish Open: Portrush back where it belongs

A concerted effort to get the Irish Open back to Portrush is set to pay off in style.

Faced with formidable obstacles over recent decades, Northern Ireland tourism officials were obliged to try that bit harder. Now, happily in peaceful times, their endeavours look set to deliver a record-breaking Irish Open, starting at Royal Portrush on Thursday.

It has already become the first event on the European Tour with a 27,000 Sunday sell-out. Hospitality packages are also sold out and given reasonable weather, indications are it can achieve another Tour first by breaking cumulative attendance figures of 100,000 over the four days.

The ingredients are impressive. Ten Major champions, including Keegan Bradley, Rich Beem and John Daly from the US, will be challenging the celebrated Dunluce links. Long recognised at its core as one of the world's truly great second-shot courses, significant upgrading stretched its overall length to 7,143 yards.

This week's happening is the realisation of a dream, not only for local enthusiasts but for self-appointed propagandists such as Darren Clarke, the reigning Open champion. As a local resident, Clarke is returning to action this week after a month's absence because of injury.

“I was about 15 on my first competitive round at Royal Portrush and I remember making a nine at the first,” he recalled.

“Yet far from alienating me, the only lasting effect was to ensure that I would never be a fan of internal out-of-bounds.

“I went on to become a huge devotee of the Dunluce links and am convinced that daily practice there played a very big part in my Open win at Royal St George's.

“There are only a few situations at Portrush where you won't see the ball land.

“If you choose to, you can hit every shot 10 feet off the ground which makes for links golf at its best. And the new back tees have strengthened the course enormously.

“I'm a massive fan of its designer, Harry Colt, who also did such a wonderful job at Sunningdale. As for the setting: I can't imagine anything to stir the heart like the view from the fifth, going down to the White Rocks and the ocean.”

Even Clarke would concede, however, that he is something of a blow-in compared to Graeme McDowell where long-time association with the links is concerned. McDowell will talk about the picture of Fred Daly with the Claret Jug hanging in the clubhouse at Rathmore GC and which he passed countless times as an eager youngster learning his craft.

“I thought it mightily surreal that Fred actually came from a small town like Portrush,” he said.

Winner of the 2000 Irish Close Championship over Dunluce, he is now looking to emulate Daly's remarkable consistency in the wake of his Major breakthrough. After capturing the Open at Hoylake in 1947, Daly went on to finish second in 1948, third in 1950, fourth in 1951 and third in 1952. So, even on the basis on his runner-up finish at The Olympic Club last Sunday, McDowell still has some way to go to match his hero.

Of course the 1951 Open at Portrush should have been about Daly, but instead, victory went to Max Faulkner.

Its return clearly has much to do with the achievements of McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Clarke, as Major championship winners.

The hope is that amenable weather will help showcase a links test of rare grandeur which, through no fault of its own, has been confined to the shadows for far too long.

Belfast Telegraph