Long-awaited confirmation that Royal Portrush will again host an Open Championship, in 2019, has been welcomed by two of Northern Ireland’s most celebrated golfers.
Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, both former Open champions, were among those to express immediate delight after the Royal & Ancient finally acknowledged that the third major of the year will be played outside England or Scotland for the first time since 1951.
Then Portrush was the venue for a tournament won by Max Faulkner but in four years’ time it will witness the biggest sporting occasion in Northern Ireland’s history.
“To hear that the Open is going there in 2019 is a dream come true,” admitted McIlroy. “I never thought I would be able to play an Open Championship at home. I’m really excited.”
Clarke, a Portrush member, was in attendance as the news – which had first been reported last summer – was delivered. The 2011 champion conceded the troubled political scene in Northern Ireland and routine violence which came with it made him doubt whether such an event could ever be held there.
“I played a lot of my golf here, lived here and have been a proud member here but to think would we ever get through the dark times Northern Ireland has had to get to this stage where we have the biggest and best tournament in the world? I’d be very foolish to say yes,” said Clarke, who is now Europe’s Ryder Cup captain.
“Nobody could foresee that coming through in the bad old days but to see how far we have all come, how far our politicians have moved this part of the country on, it has been brilliant. This is a huge step of trust by the R&A.”
The event is estimated to generate between £55m and £70m for a local area during Open year.
Under the watchful eye of the architect, Martin Ebert, work to create two new holes and re-shape many others on the links is already underway. “Due to being such a fan of the golf course I wasn’t sure about some of them,” said Clarke.
“The more I looked at them I could see the changes were going to make the course better. There’s a difference between making it tougher and making it better. Martin is making it better.
“I can’t praise Martin highly enough. He is providing a modern lift to one of the best courses in the world.”
Perhaps more pertinent to the R&A’s decision was a belief that the infrastructure on the north coast is sufficient to host a tournament on the Open’s scale. The 2012 staging of the Irish Open at Portrush was widely acclaimed and regarded even at the time as something of a test run.
Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, acknowledged a historically volatile backdrop was a consideration. “We spent a lot of time with the Northern Ireland executive, the tourist board, the club and external advisers working through those particular issues,” Slumbers said. “We are very comfortable that where we stand today, that we will be fine hosting it in July.”
Clarke, meanwhile, can still call on Ian Poulter for next summer’s Ryder Cup team after the Englishman made a desperate dash to Hong Kong.
Poulter slipped outside the world’s top 50 this week, rendering him ineligible for the WGC-HSBC Champions event in China and therefore potentially unable to compete in the 13 tournaments required to retain European Tour membership.
With entries closed for the European Tour’s Hong Kong Open, which starts on Thursday, Poulter took advantage of Rich Beem giving up his invited place to allow the 39-year-old to play.
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