PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — The next available date for the Open Championship is 2017. The R&A should pencil Royal Portrush into that slot. This links course deserves the game’s greatest championship.
The recent Irish Open proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
If the R&A wondered about the demand for big-time golf in this part of the world, all it had to do was read the numbers and weep with joy. This event sold out weeks early, and fans flooded through the gates. With the emphasis on “flooded.”
Even incessant rains couldn’t dampen the spirits of Northern Irish golf fans. It rained almost the entire third round, yet more than 30,700 poured through the gates that day alone, and attendance was 130,785 for the week. That tops the 123,000 who turned up to watch the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry, Scotland.
“You can’t do anything about the weather, but the fans have been fantastic,” Graeme McDowell said. “They have come out in their thousands this week, umbrellas in hand. They couldn’t be stopped.”
If they couldn’t be stopped for a European Tour event, imagine their enthusiasm at seeing the world’s elite in an Open Championship?
“It’s just incredible how many people have got behind it,” said Rory McIlroy, the world’s second-ranked player.
“I would love to see a big tournament come back here in the future, hopefully an Irish Open, but ultimately it would be great to see the Open come here one day.”
It felt like an Open Championship. Fans took their seats in the grandstands around the first tee and 18th hole early each morning, just as they would at a major.
“For the guys to come along here and say everything about it feels like an Open Championship is as big a praise as you can get,” said Darren Clarke, who will defend his Open Championship title next week at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Of course, local boys McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke, a Portrush member, are biased. They deserve their say since their major exploits put Portrush back on the Open Championship agenda, but it pays to listen to objective opinion.
“There’s no reason why there can’t be an Open Championship here,” 1999 Open champion Paul Lawrie said. “If there’s a better course anywhere in the world, then I’ve yet to play it.”
Like many, American Rich Beem was playing Royal Portrush for the first time.
He agreed with Lawrie.
“I think it would be a fantastic Open Championship venue,” said the winner of the 2002 PGA Championship.
“It’s a healthy challenge, just a fantastic golf course with no weaknesses.”
The Northern Irish police coped well with the numbers throughout the week, installing a park-and-ride scheme similar to those at Open Championships. Traffic flowed freely through this small seaside town an hour northwest of Belfast. I traveled in from Coleraine, 10 miles away, and never once sat in traffic.
“I thought it was going to be chaos this week, but it’s been the opposite,” Lawrie said.
The only thing that ruined the party was the wet conditions.
The R&A likes its Open venues fast and running, but Portrush was soft. Welshman Jamie Donaldson won the Irish Open at 18-under 270, but there would be no danger of that score winning at an Open Championship.
“I think they would probably make the ninth or 10th hole a par 4, or even make both of them par 4s and change it to a par 71 or par 70,” Lawrie said.
Members of the R&A’s championship committee reportedly were here on a scouting mission but kept a low profile. In time-honored fashion, the R&A won’t jump to any snap decisions. Expect numerous committee meetings at R&A headquarters in St. Andrews before the members ratify a move to bring the game’s oldest championship back to Portrush for the first time since 1951. Max Faulkner won on that occasion, the only time the Open Championship has been held off mainland Britain.
Committee members couldn’t help but be impressed.
Besides, it’s not as if the R&A takes the Open Championship to areas free from logistical problems. If the governing body can hold its championship at Royal St. George’s and Turnberry with all the glitches that arise with those remote venues, then it can take the championship to Royal Portrush, too.
“The town’s been busy, people are making money and this tournament has been a huge success,” Beem said at the Irish Open.
Expect even more success in 2017.