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Irish Open 'is going to be fabulous' - Portstewart will be buzzing

As a golfing 'village' springs up to cater for world-famous players and their fans ... the excitement is building on the north coast

By Ivan Little

They really should call it Port-stupendous. For as you amble along the coastal path out of the town, the views over Portstewart's magnificent two-mile long Strand and across to the hills of Donegal and beyond add up to a picture of perfection.

Especially on a day when the sun is shimmering on the Atlantic and showing the golden sand in its best possible light, it's hard to imagine anywhere quite like it.

It's easy to see why Jimmy Kennedy was so inspired that he wrote the classic Red Sails in the Sunset, which has been giving people something to sing about for decades.

However, next month Portstewart will have something to swing about as the world's top golfers, including our very own superstar Rory McIlroy, arrive to play in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open which, it's thought, will draw 25,000 spectators to the stunning Strand course every day.

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World class: Rory McIlroy

And in a town well-used to new-builds popping up here, there and everywhere, a somewhat different development is already taking shape around the golf course for the Irish Open, which runs from July 6 to 9 and which is now part of the Rolex Series, a new alliance of major tournaments.

Thirty workers from the supremely-efficient European Tour are building a veritable village that houses marquees, a players' lounge, a merchandising site and the biggest hospitality suite ever seen at a tournament in these parts.

It stretches for over 110 metres in length and packages there will cost up to £400 a time.

In the town itself, business people are gearing up for what they anticipate will be a profitable event too.

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Connor Allen of Harry’s Shack in Portstewart

Five years ago when the tournament came to neighbouring Portrush, the golfing gulf was huge as shopkeepers who'd thought the event would be a boost for their businesses were left bunkered because fans were banned from leaving the Royal Portrush course, making it the Irish Open that was closed to the town.

But the harsh lessons of Portrush have been learnt in Portstewart, according to tournament director Michael Moss, who recently retired as the manager of the 123-year-old Portstewart Golf Club after nearly 39 years at the helm.

"Everyone has a first class honours degree in hindsight but what happened in Portrush was wrong," he says. "People want other things to do as well as watching golf. But this year spectators will be encouraged to go into Portstewart where there's lots on and it's hoped that a shuttle bus can be arranged."

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Julie Corbett, lady captain of Portstewart Golf Club

As we talk over coffee in the club's spectacular lounge, it's difficult to look Michael in the eye because the sun-kissed vista behind him over the Strand where surfers are surfing and walkers are walking, is totally distracting.

The breathtaking views from the tees, especially on the front nine, might also just make it tough for even the finest golfers to concentrate, according to some of Portstewart's proudest patrons.

And Michael Moss's excitement about the Irish Open giving Portstewart its four days in the sun is boundless.

His admiration for the efficiency of the 'big machine' that is the European Tour organisation is immense too.

"They don't mess about," he laughs. "They pitched up the morning after our media day in May and got to work. They have a really good team of contractors who are employed by them for all the tournaments, and they had the players' lounge up in just a few days. It takes seven weeks to erect the village and three weeks to take it down."

The planning for Portstewart started 10 months ago and Michael says the most intensive focus of the organisation has been about what happens outside the golf tournament, including catering for hungry and thirsty fans who want nothing more than a pizza and a pint.

In the village, too, there will be plenty of sideshows to keep children entertained, says Michael, who is also upbeat Co Down indie group Two Door Cinema Club will be opening the Irish Open with a concert in front of 6,000 fans.

The only controversy so far has been the price of tickets which is up on recent years, but the Irish Open is expected to generate millions of pounds for the economy in Portstewart and farther afield where hotels are filling up quickly and where stars like Rory McIlroy have rented houses for the week.

In Portstewart itself there's a tangible buzz about the event, whose organisers set up a series of 'engagement meetings' with business folk to keep them up to speed with arrangements for the event.

Traders in the town are laying on special golf-themed promotions, and the Crescent at the end of the promenade will be party central with the provision of musical entertainment, a fan zone and big screen so that people can follow what's going on just around the corner. Of course, off the course, even on a normal summer day, traffic jams are par for the course in Portstewart.

But a temporary one-way system has been agreed upon and organisers hope it will kick out the jams around the town.

The feared traffic chaos of Newcastle during the Irish Open at Royal County Down two years ago never really materialised, and three free park and rides around the north coast with spaces for 8,000 cars will be in operation with anticipated journey times of no longer than 15 minutes to and from the course.

Another fillip for Portstewart has come with the confirmation that the dramatic road improvements to the A26 at the Frosses are now complete, in plenty of time for the event, speeding up the travel time for day-tripping fans.

Cars, however, will be banned from Portstewart Strand to ease the potential for even more snarl-ups on Strand Road but people will still be able to access the beach on foot.

That doesn't mean, though, that freeloading rubberneckers will be able to clamber up the dunes to take a gander at the golfing action - security teams have been hired to keep them away.

Rory McIlroy, who was on an emotional high last year when he won the Irish Open in Co Kildare, is again hosting the tournament through his Rory Foundation.

And the prize money of €7m has helped banish any notion that the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open is any longer a poor relation on the golf circuit. In fact, it's fast becoming one of the biggest.

And Michael Moss says this year's Irish Open will also be one of the best.

The presence of Rory is gold-dust in itself but the star-studded line-up also includes household names like Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose, Hideki Matsuyama, Lee Westwood and Tommy Fleetwood. Not to mention Jon Rahm, the 22-year-old Spanish golfer they're all talking about.

"We'd love to welcome an American like Spieth or Mickelson," says Michael. "They don't have to declare until two weeks before the start of the tournament."

Americans who play for the love of the game are coming to Portstewart and other Northern Irish clubs in bigger numbers than ever before.

And officials hope that coverage of the Irish Open on television will lead to even more tourists making the north their number one destination for their golf.

Just across the road from the Portstewart club, the much vaunted Harry's Shack restaurant at the Strand is bringing in extra staff and extending its opening hours to cope with the upswing in golfers visiting it during the Irish Open.

Manager Connor Allen says a new outside decking area has just been opened too, and a number of nights at the Shack are already booked out for corporate events.

He adds: "July is a hectic time for us every year but during Irish Open week we are going to depart from our normal practice of closing for a few hours during the day. We'll also have a kiosk too."

Just outside the Shack, Portstewart ladies captain Julie Corbett, who's taking her cocker spaniel Bentley for a walk on the Strand, is counting down the days to the start of the Irish Open.

"I think it's going to be fabulous. It's great for the club, the town and the whole area around here," he says.

The golf course will be out of bounds for players like Julie before the tournament, but she adds: "I haven't heard anyone complaining. Not one person. Members are concentrating on the positives, not the negatives."

Julie will be among a number of officials meeting and greeting guests at the clubhouse and many of the Portstewart members will be volunteering for duties including marshalling around the course on the days of the Irish Open. A total of 550 volunteers have been recruited from right around the golfing world.

Many of them - including Michael Moss - will also be participating in the Pro-Am on the day before the tournament gets under way in earnest.

Back in Portstewart, Damian Morelli, whose family name is synonymous with ice-cream, says he and the rest of the business community on the promenade have warmed to the idea of the Irish Open. "Obviously we are busy anyway in July but we think there'll be even more visitors this year," he says.

"However, we are hoping that the legacy of the Irish Open will be important. In years to come I think that Americans in particular will want to come back to play the Strand course in Portstewart."

Even the people whose interests are in other strands - of hair, for example - are hoping for a spin-off from the tournament.

Lynne McAllister, who runs Madame Margo's hair design salon in the Diamond area, says: "I'm not a golfer but I think it's wonderful that the Irish Open is on its way to Portstewart.

"Women who accompany their menfolk to the tournament will probably want a spruce-up for going out in the evening and we are here for them."

Derek Leighton McKenzie, who has a menswear shop on the promenade, says he's thrilled the Irish Open is Portstewart-bound but he isn't expecting any major upturn in business for himself.

"Realistically that doesn't tend to happen at the NW200 either but the flipside is that more people will come to Portstewart afterwards and, in the long run, it will be a marvellous boost for the town," he says.

Jimmy Hamill, who has an electronics shop on the promenade, doesn't think visitors will be buying massive TVs but is convinced the Irish Open will be good for Portstewart's profile.

Jimmy has been a member of Portstewart Golf Club for 35 years and he has volunteered to drive the buggies which will take players from the practice areas to the first tee-box.

He says: "I'd love to have Rory in my buggy. You never know, I might pick up a few tips from him, but if he saw me play he'd probably tell me to cut my golf clubs in half and put them in the bin."

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