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Irish Open: Tour heaps praise on course

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Royal Portrush

Royal Portrush

Royal Portrush

The Irish Open may return to Royal Portrush sooner rather than later, so impressed has the European Tour been with the club.

What has surprised them most of all, given the talk of logistical problems in bringing the tournament to the north Antrim coast, is the scale of the site and the potential of the club for the future.

And that in turn should demonstrate once and for all to the R&A that Royal Portrush is ready to once again host the Open Championship.

“The European Tour has told me that this is the most spacious venue they have been to all year,” said Royal Portrush's tournament director John Bamber.

“There has been lots of talk about this but the more the Tour has got its teeth into this event, the more potential they see here.

“We sit in an open area of around 600-700 acres; much, much more than they are used to dealing with.

“So what is starting to come home is the suitability to stage an Open here again.

“The R&A will obviously be watching this event with interest to see how we handle up to 30,000 people here.”

The interest from Northern Ireland golf fans has been phenomenal, driven by a perfect storm of three home-grown Major champions in the field, the majesty of Royal Portrush itself and the lack of top tournament golf from the province for almost 60 years.

“Northern Ireland really is the All Blacks of the sporting world at the moment,” added John.

“Ticket sales have been incredible right from the start and we are looking now at potential total attendance to rival some of the recent Open Championships.

“With all due respect to Killarney and the work they did in staging the Irish Open, but total ticket sales for the last Irish Open there were £40,000. Total sales here will be approaching four times that amount.”

Bamber's tournament committee has been working closely with the European Tour since the event was confirmed on January 6.

Everyone concerned has since been working to an extremely tight deadline, which Bamber says was a blessing in disguise.

“In some ways it was quite refreshing because there was no time for anyone to do anything other than get on with the work,” he said.

“The European Tour have been incredibly professional to work with and have had a team based permanently here and you have to appreciate this is just one of about 30 events they are running this year.

“We have been starved of tournament golf for so long in Northern Ireland that I think the enthusiasm for this Irish Open has taken them by surprise.”

The decision to retain the two holes around the turn as sub-500 yard par fives was taken by the Tour, though, and not the club.

“I was walking the course with them and Darren Clarke when that decision was made and they were very definite they wanted to keep the course as a par 72,” said John.

“They felt that the degree of difficulty of the course, assuming we don't get four calm days, was severe enough and we want to be able to use the difficult pin positions and tee boxes.

“The European Tour want to have a red number winning and they don’t want to make it like a US Open. It was painful watching some of the play from San Francisco where lots of good shots were being heavily penalised.

“Darren says it is a tough course but fair and I think that's very true. Rarely is a good shot penalised here.”

Bamber was delighted to see Royal Portrush member Patrick McCrudden being given an invite to play the Irish Open by the Golfing Union of Ireland as one of four Ulster amateurs in the field.

“Patrick is actually the joint course record holder,” he said.

“Everyone knows about Rory McIlroy's 61, but that was off the old tees.

“We haven't played too many competitions off the new championship tees but the new course record is 68 and Patrick shot that this year. We are so pleased to have him playing here not just as one of our champion golfers, but as the reigning North of Ireland champion after his victory here last year.”

Royal Portrush is bringing in volunteers from 18 clubs from around Northern Ireland as marshals. Each club will take ownership of one hole.

Finalising arrangements like that, as well as liaising with government, police and umpteen other organisations have kept Bamber and the rest of the Royal Portrush working flat out for months in the lead-up to this championship.

“You have to go through a certain amount of pain to deliver an event to this standard. It's something I hope all the members can be very proud of,” he said.

“When the likes of Darren and Rory tee off on Thursday morning as past Major champions I think every member of this club will have a lump in their throat.

“We have brought a big championship back to Northern Ireland. Government has been very supportive but I think when we look back on this the club can stand up there and say that we have made a contribution to the future of Northern Ireland.”

Belfast Telegraph