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Unifying spirit of The Open 'an example for all our politicians'

Committee chair so proud of Portrush

John Bamber at the club
John Bamber at the club
Arlene Foster, Darren Clarke and Martin McGuinness in 2015 when it was confirmed The Open would be held in Royal Portrush this year
The clear-up begins after The Open
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

The man who helped to mastermind the drive to bring The Open golf championship back to Portrush has called for politicians at Stormont to take a lead from the competition's unifying spirit.

The event, which was beamed to 600m households on TV around the world, has been hailed as the biggest and best sporting event ever staged in Northern Ireland.

John Bamber, who chaired Royal Portrush's championship committee, said he was proud of the way the whole country had embraced the Open, which was won by Co Offaly's Shane Lowry, the new darling of Irish golf on both sides of the border.

Some 237,000 people attended the Open last week as it returned to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

Among them were a series of political leaders, including the DUP's Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, who have been unable to find a way of restoring the power-sharing Executive at Stormont, which was suspended in January 2017 after a series of policy disagreements.

Mr Bamber said: "I'm not getting into politics but I hope that some of our leaders who took the time to come to Portrush will have gone away from The Open seeing how people working together is a benefit. It's been fabulous."

He praised the input to the Open of the pre-collapse Stormont Executive, headed by Mrs Foster and Martin McGuinness, who he said "were prepared to invest in this project".

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However, Sinn Fein and the DUP have already fallen out over The Open, with republicans claiming that Mrs Foster, the former First Minister, was 'incapable' of acknowledging the role the former deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness played in securing the tournament for Royal Portrush.

Mr Bamber said he took a huge degree of satisfaction from the financial benefits that should flow for tourism and the Northern Ireland economy in general.

Tourism NI chief John McGrillen has estimated that the financial windfall will top £100m.

Royal Portrush officials are hoping to welcome the Open back soon.

The Royal and Ancient (R&A), which organises the championship, have an agreement with Royal Portrush that it could return on two more occasions in the next 20 years.

Nothing is written in stone, although Portrush golfer Graeme McDowell has called for it to return 'sooner rather than later' - possibly in the next five years.

Mr Bamber said: "Hopefully - and it's a personal opinion - this will not be the only time the Open happens here.

"I hope everything in our country remains stable. But there are caveats about that stability. It would just be a shame if we had to wait another 68 years for another Open."

Mr Bamber said the entire week of the Open had far exceeded his expectations.

He added: "The atmosphere and the friendships were great. I was down in Portrush on Saturday night and everyone had a smile on their face.

"All the hard work of the last seven or eight years paid off. And I am so proud of Royal Portrush. The R&A were prepared to take the risk to come to Northern Ireland but our club members were also brave to back plans to change the course here."

He said the thousands of volunteers who worked tirelessly at the Open had been invaluable.

Mr Bamber, who featured prominently in a recent BBC Northern Ireland documentary about the moves to attract the Open to Portrush, added that the R&A had been 'staggered' by the response from golf fans, on the course and off it.

Golf writers around the world have said they had never experienced anything quite like it.

Mr Bamber said that while he wouldn't describe himself as an emotional man, as he stood at the first tee on Thursday morning awaiting Darren Clarke's opening shot he was 'choking up'.

He also revealed that the club's patron, Prince Andrew, who had spent several days at the Open, had played 18 holes with him earlier in the month.

"He enjoyed it immensely," added Mr Bamber, who got a public name-check from the R&A at the presentation of the Claret Jug to Shane Lowry after his decisive win on Sunday.

Afterwards in the players' clubhouse Mr Bamber was presented with a plaque as he and the rest of the Royal Portrush championship committee were invited to meet Lowry at a champagne reception, before the victorious golfer travelled south to a celebration in a pub in Dublin's Dawson Street.

The Royal Portrush presentation party after the Open included ladies' captain Liz McCartney, who had a heavily strapped-up ankle which she strained during a dress rehearsal for handing over the Claret Jug. Her injury stopped her being a scorer on the course at The Open but she limped onto the 18th green for the trophy presentation.

Lowry (32) claimed his first Major win with a dominant six-shot victory.

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