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The Open: Portrush's date with destiny

BY Frank Brownlow

Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke last night expressed their excitement at confirmation the Open is returning to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

Even Tiger Woods took time out to offer his backing to the fact that the Open will be played at Royal Portrush in 2019.

Royal Portrush was also the venue 63 years ago, when England's Max Faulkner was triumphant. That is the only time the tournament has been played outside England or Scotland.

The highly successful Irish Open staged at Royal Portrush in 2012 – when record crowds flocked to the event – was regarded as a crucial factor in the Open itself coming to the north coast venue.

It is appropriate that the Open is coming here during what is a golden age for Ulster golf.

McIlroy, Clarke and McDowell have won four Majors between them in recent years, with the latter – a Portrush native – making the big breakthrough at the US Open in 2010.

That was only the second Major victory ever by a Northern Ireland player, following on from Fred Daly's triumph at Royal Liverpool way back in 1947.

"I grew up in Portrush and it has always been my dream to play in an Open Championship there," said McDowell last night.

"But I thought that having the Open back in Portrush was only a pipe dream.

"This shows just how far Northern Ireland has come as a country.

"The country has moved on from its past troubles.

"I am very proud to have played some small part in making the dream become reality. If anything Rory, Darren and myself have achieved has helped, that's fantastic.

"The Open is such a big deal and I didn't really believe it coming here was a real possibility during my career.

"I hope I am still playing well by then and still competitive.

"I just hope I'm fit and well and eligible and exempt.

"Something like this is a massive boost. It will be amazing.

"Winning the Open in Portrush would be so special.

"I am so proud of Portrush, proud of the whole town.

"It will be phenomenal for the whole country. It will be huge for the economy and for Irish golf in general.

"Royal Portrush needs some changes, needs a little length, but it'll be a solid Open venue."

Clarke, who won the Open in 2011 amid emotional scenes at Royal St George's, grew up in Dungannon but has been a Portrush resident for several years. "There's no question the course is good enough," said Clarke, who – like McIlroy and McDowell – begins his US Open bid at Pinehurst today.

Golfing superstar McIlroy – winner of the 2011 US Open and 2012 US PGA Championship – has been a vocal advocate of the Open returning to Northern Ireland, rubbishing claims that Royal Portrush would not be a suitable venue.

"It is far more of a logistical nightmare putting the US Open on at (last year's venue) Merion than playing the Open Championship at Portrush," said the Holywood native.

"Anyone who says that it doesn't have the infrastructure or logistically isn't accessible enough for a big tournament needs to come and see somewhere like Merion and see that it can be done," said McIlroy, who famously shot a 61 at Royal Portrush in the 2005 North of Ireland Championship when a 16-year-old schoolboy.

McIlroy is seen by many as the natural successor to Tiger Woods, the golfing great who has 14 Majors to his name and is still in the hunt for Jack Nicklaus' all-time record 18.

Woods, a close friend of Clarke, has regularly practised at Royal Co Down over the years ahead of his Open bids.

And Woods said he is pleased that the Open is coming to Royal Portrush.

"That's exciting news and I'm delighted for Darren, Rory and Graeme," he said.

Nine-times Major winner Gary Player – Senior Open champion at Royal Portrush in 1997 – also added his backing.

"It's one of the greatest golf links in the world and it would be most deserving to have the greatest tournament in the world played at Portrush," said the legendary South African.

The influence of McIlroy, McDowell and Clarke has been crucial with all three lobbying the governing Royal & Ancient to add Royal Portrush to the Open rota, which now has 10 venues.

PGA of America President Ted Bishop put pressure on the R&A last November when he said Royal Portrush would be his personal choice if his association went ahead with the proposal of occasionally contesting the US PGA Championship outside of America.

But now the biggest tournament of them all is coming to these shores.


Open prize makes it to Ulster at last

Northern Ireland has landed one of the world’s greatest sporting events — and Royal Portrush is sure to be the most fitting of venues.

The Open Championship will be played at Royal Portrush in 2019, the first time the tournament has been played here since 1951 — and only the second time it has ever been staged outside England or Scotland.

The Irish Open at Royal Portrush in 2012 was the European Tour’s most successful event ever, with record crowds of over 130,000 descending on the north coast resort.

That was the first time the Irish Open had been staged north of the border since 1953 and was regarded by many as proof that Royal Portrush had the credentials to join the nine clubs on the Open Championship rota.

The 2012 Irish Open received substantial backing from the Northern Ireland Executive with First Minister Peter Robinson highly vocal in his support.

That led to the recent announcement that the Irish Open will return to Northern Ireland in the near future — Royal Co Down next year and Lough Erne Resort in 2017.

The Amateur Open takes place at Royal Portrush next week.

These latest developments were regarded by many as evidence that the bid to bring the Open back to Northern Ireland was gathering momentum.

First Minister Robinson even went as far as to confirm that talks were at an advanced stage.

The much more stable political situation in the country has also been a big factor.

And last night any lingering doubts disappeared with confirmation that the Open will be played at Royal Portrush in 2019.

The support of Ulster’s golfing superstars Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke has been vital in bringing the Open back to Northern Ireland.

Governing body the Royal & Ancient had in the past cited lack of infrastructure and issues with the course such as lack of space for grandstands as reasons for the Open remaining an elusive dream for Royal Portrush.

But the positive attitude shown by the club and the enthusiastic support of the Northern Ireland Executive — the latter key to the prestigious Giro d’Italia cycle race starting in Belfast last month — has helped clear the last few remaining hurdles.

The obvious hunger of the Ulster public for big events has also played a major part.

When tickets for the 2019 Open Championship go on sale, the demand is likely to exceed anything the R&A has had to deal with before.

Tickets for the four rounds are sure to be red hot, as are tickets even for practice rounds.

The years ahead are set to be the most exciting ever in Ulster golf, with the 2015 Irish Open at Royal Co Down and the 2017 tournament at Lough Erne Resort now viewed as a natural build-up to the greatest golfing event on the planet.

And with McIlroy still just 25 years of age, the Holywood man should still be at the top of the golfing world come 2019.

Exhilarating times for Ulster golf. Can Rory — or G-Mac — provide a fairytale ending five years from now?

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