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The Open at Royal Portrush 2019: Living proof that those impossible dreams do come true

By Deric Henderson

After the last of the visitors and guests had departed and made their way up the Bushmills Road on their way back to Belfast, I daresay the elder statesmen of Royal Portrush adjourned to a quiet corner upstairs amid the formality of the Babington Room overlooking the 18th green, and allowed themselves a few minutes quiet reflection while Kenny Gault, the chief bar steward, was on hand to take an order.

And quite right too. For these are the members who invested so many years of their lives to make it the special place it truly is. Most of them were around to witness Max Faulkner's winning putt back in 1951, but after so many years of civil unrest and political upheaval, how many seriously believed this tournament would ever return to the North Coast?

On the wall beside the counter is a fine Frank McKelvey portrait of the late Sir Anthony Babington, a former Northern Ireland High Court judge, who belonged to a previous era, and who was honoured for his contribution to the club by having the 16th named after him.

Once the all the work is complete, it will be become the new finishing hole with a couple of fairway bunkers strategically placed to gather in poor approach shots that fall well short of the putting area. Come the summer of 2019 and that stretch of the course will be framed by enormous grandstands on three sides and will surely make for one of the greatest man-made golfing theatres in the history of the Open Championship.

Every time they walk down that stretch on a Saturday afternoon, most members pause for a while and try to visualise what it could look like on the final day of the 148th annual tournament, and which club Rory McIlroy or Graeme McDowell might reach for as they prepare to their hit second towards the galleries. Twelve months or so after the course was re-instated on the rota by the R&A, they still can't quite take it in.

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Even in the aftermath of the spectacular triumph that was the 2012 Irish Open who would have ever believed it would get this far? When the great and the good assembled in the clubhouse yesterday to hear an announcement no one thought possible at one time. The impossible dream.

Not all that long ago Portrush was in grave danger of losing part of the fifth green and sixth tee because of the high and damaging tides sweeping in from the Skerries onto the dunes on the East Strand down below. The stone defences installed to thwart the continuing threat posed by coastal erosion have stood up well to nature's driving forces.

The Dunluce links are, by common consent, among the finest in the world and in golfing terms, this is sacred soil. The changes which the R&A said were necessary to stage an Open championship and all that goes with it are beginning to take shape.

The bulldozers are in, but this is a highly sensitive operation and followed a brilliantly choreographed and exhaustive consultation process which was embraced by 99.9 per cent of the membership.

It will be 2017 before everything is ready, on the adjoining Valley course as well which will give up the fifth and sixth holes to allow for some of the new development on the Dunluce. It is to be lengthened by almost 200 yards. Apart from several new greens, the number of bunkers will be increased by three to 62. The new championship tees, include one at Calamity - the par three 14th - which will look out of this world and on a windy day has the potential to put fear of God into McIlroy, never mind a struggling 18 handicapper.

There were those who initially had their doubts about the proposed changes, Darren Clarke among them - and especially on the closing holes at the Valley - but nearly 90 years after the legendary Harry Colt transformed the main course, the responsibility for preparing it to set new challenges, has been handed over to an architect of the modern era, Martin Ebert. It is a monumental project.

There is no doubt that the major triumphs of McIlroy, Clarke and McDowell, all inside the space of a few years, had a powerful influence on those who sit in judgment and make the big calls at St Andrews.

The manner and style in which the Irish Open was hosted as well as funded by a highly supportive Northern Ireland Executive three years ago had an equally significant impact as well.

There has always been a warm and a welcoming atmosphere about Portrush, as evidenced in yesterday's proceedings, but maybe not as formal as its big links rival clubs like Royal Co Down or Portmarnock, but there is an amazing atmosphere and a serious feelgood factor about the place just now.

There is a new leadership ­- determined, innovative, imaginative, ambitious and persuasive, and who never lost hope of securing a prize which many believed was well beyond their reach. A few glasses were no doubt also raised to those men in the Babington last night. And deservedly so.

Deric Henderson is a member of Royal Portrush Golf Club

Belfast Telegraph


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