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'It's just amazing' - Royal Portrush course chief Beatt can't wait to showcase spectacular links to world

 

Greens giant: Graeme Beatt
Greens giant: Graeme Beatt
Royal Portrush gears up for the 148th Open
Royal Portrush gears up for the 148th Open
Graeme with his wife Katriona and daughters Charlotte (8) and Emily (6)

By Maxie Swain

Like everyone else, Graeme Beatt, the course manager at Royal Portrush, can picture the scene.

It's late on Championship Sunday and the atmosphere on Northern Ireland's spectacular north coast crackles with excitement.

The Atlantic glitters in the background, blue and bejewelled, as a low-slung sun casts the last of its lambent evening light across the famous Dunluce Links.

There's a grandstand finish in the offing.

Tiger, attired ominously in red, strides purposefully from the 18th tee box, Rory a few steps behind, a little twiddle of his TaylorMade M5 an approving nod to another booming drive.

In the brief interlude between shots, the world's cameras pull back from the close-ups for a panorama revealing the raw splendour and wild beauty of the track itself, a wonderful mosaic of electric greens and pale yellows, of undulating hills, meandering brooks, manicured fairways, ancient sand dunes.

Plus, of course, a slow-moving 43,000-strong surge of spectators all there to witness the magic.

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In just over a week, the game's richest, most famous, most feted and celebrated players will invade this part of the world for the biggest sporting event in Northern Ireland's history, a golfing armada of seasoned superstars all in with a shot of glory and immortality at the 148th Open Championship.

It's the final Major of the season - the first on these shores since 1951 - and all that stands between the players and the highly-prized Claret Jug is this star-studded field and the course itself.

Perhaps more than any other sport, aesthetics matter in golf, and Royal Portrush is as handsome as they come.

Beatt is the proud custodian of this grand old dame - he and his team of greenkeepers - and he's sure the estimated 600m tuning in to watch will be blown away.

"It's an amazing sight," he told the Belfast Telegraph in his last interview before the tournament kicks off in earnest on Thursday week.

"It's much more undulating than a lot of links courses. There are big elevation changes throughout the course, which means you get really nice views of the sea.

"It's quite an interesting course to play because you are up and down and over dunes, so I think the players are going to like it, there is something quite different about it.

"And there are differences in the way it plays, the rough is probably a bit more challenging than some of the other links courses, but then our fairways are quite wide as well.

"And it's generally quite a windy place, so the players are going to have to manage their way around the golf course, it's not a course where you can just bomb it down the fairway off every tee unless you are very, very confident. And if you miss the fairways and the greens in the wrong places, it can make it quite difficult."

Born in Newport on Scotland's eastern coast, but now living here with his wife Katriona (39) - his high school sweetheart - and their daughters, Charlotte (8) and six-year-old Emily, Beatt joined Royal Portrush in 2014 having spent his university years at St Andrew's, the cradle of golf and the game's spiritual home.

His was an idyllic childhood where sport featured prominently. Dundee United were his boyhood idols - they still are, in fact, for his sins - while he eventually fell in love with the game, aged 10, after some encouragement from his uncle Ronnie, a golf aficionado who would collect and refurbish antique hickory clubs in his spare time.

"There are so many courses where I come from," Beatt reminisced. "It's like the Disney of golf, it was a great place to grow up."

He might just be the busiest man in golf these days, but Beatt admits he's got another big event vying for his attention next week - his daughter's ninth birthday party.

Blissfully aloof to the stellar 'who's who' of golfing royalty set to touch down on these shores over the next few days, Beatt's own little superstar won't let him or his wife forget she has her own milestone to mark once the sun sets on The Open.

"The eldest daughter, it's her birthday after The Open, she's going to be nine on the Monday so she's expecting a big party," laughed Beatt.

Beyond the Championship, and those very important celebrations the following day, Beatt is hoping against hope for a sun-splashed summer.

He's a keen gardener - unusually for someone in his profession, he says - but scoffs at the suggestion his garden must be a horticultural work of art.

"No, I wouldn't go that far," he smiled. "But I actually enjoy gardening and so does my wife. Most greenkeepers don't necessarily like gardening, but I like it."

Nor has he been tempted to build his own Championship-standard green out the back where he could secretly hone his short game, like McIlroy (left) did at his childhood home in Holywood.

"We have 53 greens to look after here (at Royal Portrush) so I've probably got enough greens on my hands," he joked.

Back at Royal Portrush and it's all go, with Beatt and his team meticulous in their preparation.

It's been four years in the making, ever since the R&A bowed to the clamour following the runaway success of the Irish Open in 2012 - an event which drew the biggest crowds in European Tour history - and added Royal Portrush to its rotation of Open courses.

In the interim, five new greens have been added, eight new tee boxes, 10 new bunkers and two new holes - the seventh and eighth - while there has been a huge turfing operation to prepare the ground for the 190,000 spectators who will trudge around the course during the four competition days and preceding practice rounds.

Everything is in place then. Everything, that is, except the weather.

It's one of the few things beyond Beatt's control but, like the rest of us, he's praying the gods are kind and that designer Harry Colt's masterpiece gets the chance to shine, literally and figuratively.

"The weather, that's the big thing really," said Beatt.

"Most of the other bases are covered, we are pretty comfortable with the course and the turf and the greens and everything else, so it is really the weather.

"And plus it's a sell-out, there are so many spectators coming so you are just hoping we don't get a wet week.

"On the one hand, you want a bit of wind to challenge the best players in the world, but you want good weather as well to make it look good on TV, the players will enjoy it more if the weather is decent, the spectators will enjoy it more, it would just make it an all-round better event.

"But I suppose you can only take what you are given, it's just one of those things. It's Northern Ireland after all.

"But hopefully the whole event really just showcases golf in Ireland. There are some of the best links courses in the world here and I think for people from overseas, for some of them who don't know about the golf courses over here, they will be really impressed - it's exciting times."

As for the potential of a last-pair duel on Sunday between the world's two biggest players, who knows.

But ever since Royal Portrush secured this, the ultimate gig in golf, so many people around the Dunluce Links and beyond have let their imaginations run wild, and Beatt is no different.

Though, as he rightly points out, it would be remiss of anyone to overlook Graeme McDowell - the brother of greenkeeper Gary - a Major winner who knows the course inside out.

"I think if Rory and Tiger are playing together, there will be some crowd following that," said Beatt. "But to have Graeme McDowell playing as well is amazing. It's a small country with a small population but just look at the superstars it has produced."

Science behind lightning greens

In ordinary times, to keep the course pristine, Graeme Beatt and his team cut the greens every day, and the tees, fairways and green surrounds twice a week.

But these are not ordinary times, with everything set to be cut once a day during Championship week, and the greens possibly twice daily, depending on their speed.

Green speeds are obviously vitally important, and always a huge talking point in any pro tournament, never mind when a Major is at stake.

Links courses generally aim for green lengths of between 3mm and 4.5mm, with Beatt planning to keep his at around 4mm, depending on the results of the stimpmeter, a fairly rudimentary device which measures the roll of a golf ball - and by association green speeds - on a level part of the green. As for the grass, there's a science behind that too. In elite level football, grass is genetically engineered to make it fit for purpose; that is, robust enough to withstand the wear and tear of boots and studs and hardy enough to survive in shaded parts of a stadium where there is limited sunlight.

And there are parallels in the game of golf. The grass at Royal Portrush is of the fescue variety, a sturdy and fine-leafed species which makes it conducive to roll - a defining feature of any proper links course - while being especially tolerant to wind, salt and cool temperatures.

"You achieve good ball roll with this because generally the surface will be firm, which is what we are looking for," explained Beatt.

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