The logistics are frightening, the interest phenomenal and not only from the golfing fraternity but the general public.
Never before has a tournament, like the forthcoming Irish Open at Royal Portrush, generated so much buzz and anticipation. Everybody, it seems, intends “spending a few days at the golf” as part of their summer vacation.
In a Memory Lane column last year I suggested that if all who planned attending did so, they would have to accommodate them in tents around those green Glens of Antrim. That prediction looks like coming true, yet it is difficult to comprehend how the tournament was virtually put into prolonged cold storage due to lack of sponsorship.
Put the transformation and renewed appeal down to our three golfing heroes — Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke — who, over the years, have done so much to promote internationally their native land. There could have no better advertisement than this trio’s global dominance.
The Irish Open, a 72-hole tournament staged in all parts of Ireland now returns to Royal Portrush where, in 1951, the Open Championship was won by Max Faulkner, friend of the late Sammy Moore, a Belvoir Park icon and team-mate of Fred Daly.
“Faulkner, with a colour of the rainbow dress sense, was one of golf’s most charismatic and knowledgeable characters all wrapped into one,” was how the late Jack Magowan — acclaimed golf correspondent of the Belfast Telegraph — described him.
Royal County Down was the first Northern Ireland venue for the Irish Open while for the 1930 series the USA star Horton Smith, later a Masters champion, was extended an invitation but as he demanded appearance money, the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI) emphatically said ‘no’. The title was won by Charles Whitcombe, a member of a famous golfing family from Crews Hill, by eight strokes with a four-round 289 total. Abe Mitchell the runner-up.
The Irish Open had made a decisive impact and over the years all the superstars competed — Faldo, O’Connor, Montgomerie, Torrance, Langer, Woosnam, Ballesteros, and Crenshaw to name but few who battled for the title.
It was the 1937 tournament which produced an amazing climax and one which certainly impressed Ian Bamford who wrote the centenary history of Royal Portrush, captained the club, as well as Warrenpoint, was elected GUI President and became an established leading member of the Ulster legal profession.
Bamford recalls: “Jimmy Adams was in the clubhouse with a four-round 285 total and when Bert Gadd (West Cheshire) enquired on the 17th tee what he needed to win, ‘six strokes on the remaining two holes’ came the reply. His chances didn’t appear bright yet he finished 3-3, holing putts on the 17th and 18th for a dramatic triumph.”
Harry Bradshaw won the championship 10 years later at Royal Portrush, finishing with two vital birdie fours for a 290 total, largely helped by the use of his driver on no fewer than four occasions over the last two holes.
Belvoir Park was the 1949 venue where around 10,000 spectators attended over the three days. Contrast that with the 100,000 who will flood the north coast this year.
Bradshaw avenged his Open defeat by Bobby Locke, somewhat alleviating his natural disappointment. He totalled 286 (70, 71, 72, 73) to finish just ahead of the South African who made a magnificent attempt to catch up with the field. Locke was a popular favourite at Belvoir and a constant companion of Sammy Moore, who introduced me as a social member to enjoy many years of friendship and conviviality.
The entry in 1953, read like a Who’s Who of professional golf, all vying for the Championship gold medal and the £750 prize, while the amateurs were chasing a similar gong. The field included Daly, Locke and Faulkner so is it any wonder, therefore, the prize money for the winner was £250 more than Ben Hogan received for finishing first in the Open at Carnoustie that same year?
Scotsman Eric Brown burst the Belvoir field open with a 66 but then came big-hitting 21-year-old Peter Alliss who trailed him by only one shot after the second round. Joe Carr threw in an amateur course record of 68 — still seven shots behind the leader.
It was looking a four-horse race with Harry Weetman and Locke three and five shots back respectively. Brown, however, was not to be denied as a third sub-70 kept him in front as Weetman closed in with Alliss. Brown surged on to win a competition which vanished off the calendar. Today it has given Irish golf a wonderful boost.
Will Royal Portrush 2012 be a success? Perhaps the launch pad for another Open championship in Northern Ireland? Vibes coming from the Royal and Ancient are not too comforting but that’s a story for another day.