Portrush, Northern Ireland – “It feels like I’m playing The Open. It has that kind of feel.”
Scotland’s Gary Orr wasn’t the only one who thought he turned up to play in a regular European Tour event only to find himself in the sort of atmosphere you can only find at the Open Championship.
If this week’s Irish Open is a rehearsal for the game’s greatest tournament, then Royal Portrush is ticking nearly all the right boxes.
“It would be great for an Open Championship,” two time Open champion Padraig Harrington said. “It’s awesome. It is a joy to play this golf course. It’s got a lot of testing golf shots on it but it also gives you something when you hit a good shot.”
Anyone who questioned whether or not the Northern Irish would support big time golf only had to turn up at Portrush to find the answer. It is a resounding yes. But that’s always been the case. They turned up in thousands when the 2007 Walker Cup was played at Royal County Down. And that was before the economic downturn.
“For the crowds to turn out in the middle of a recession, pay big money like they are paying makes me proud to be Irish,” Paul McGinley said. “We go to a lot of countries around the world, a lot wealthier than Ireland and not going through the economic downturn that we are in, and yet we have record sell outs here.”
Over 23,000 turned up for round one, even though the weather was awful. That was nearly 5,000 up on 12 months ago at Killarney.
Of course it helped to have three local boys in the field who own major championships. U.S. Open champions Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy were the top draws alongside defending Open champion Darren Clarke, a Royal Portrush member.
The game’s oldest championship has only ever been held at Royal Portrush once. In 1951 colorful Englishman Max Faulkner lifted the old claret jug on these links, the only time the Open Championship has been held off mainland Britain. Needless to say, Clarke is keenest to get the Open Championship back to Royal Portrush.
“I’m not foolish enough to try to put words in the R&A’s mouth,” Clarke said. “They obviously know what they are doing with the Open Championship. All we can do is try and show that we can cope on all levels with a major tournament. If this is anything to go by, it’s shown that we can have a major tournament.
“There are all bits and pieces that goes into hosting The Open. We hope this will be another step in the right direction, that they (the R&A) will take a look and give it due consideration.”
Royal Portrush has always been keen to bring major championship golf back to this area. The political violence that plagued this area for decades previously made that idea a non-runner. However, the Northern Ireland peace process has yielded positive results. Hence the reason Portrush is back in the running to get The Open.
The success of McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke has only accelerated the calls for Portrush to host the world’s best golfers. Indeed, club secretary Wilma Erskine travelled to last week’s Amateur Championship to meet with R&A officials, and the R&A is here this week on a scouting mission.
The weather is the only factor not cooperating this week. The R&A prefers its Open courses to be fast and running, but heavy rains have made Royal Portrush green, soft and lush, enabling players to fire at the pins. That’s links golf, though, where Mother Nature plays a huge part in course set-up.
Make no mistake, though, this week is a test run for whether or not Royal Portrush gets the biggest championship in golf for a second time. So far so good.