Royal Portrush back on the Open radar

The par-3 third hole at Royal Portrush.

SANDWICH, England – The Rory McIlroy/Graeme McDowell effect could take the Open Championship back to Royal Portrush, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said today.

The Northern Ireland course staged the game’s oldest major in 1951, when flamboyant Max Faulkner won on the only occasion the championship has been held off the British mainland. There have been noises about taking the championship back to Portrush ever since.

Those noises grew louder after Graeme McDowell won the 2010 U.S. Open, and increased in even greater volume when Rory McIlroy made it back-to-back U.S. Open wins for Northern Irish players with his runaway victory at Congressional.

Both men have endorsed the championship’s return to the province of Ulster.

“If you grow up at Portrush, then you know all about the Open Championship played there,” McDowell said. “It would be a dream come true to play the Open at Royal Portrush."

McIlroy agrees. “St. Andrews is my favorite Open venue, but that might change if The Open ever goes back to Royal Portrush. It would be kind of special for a boy from Northern Ireland to play the Open there.”

Their wishes might come true.

"Obviously there’s much emotion about Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy’s victories and why don't we go back to Northern Ireland and perhaps Portrush in particular, and I understand that,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said in the R&A's pre-tournament press conference at Royal St. George's.

"You can't, however, base where you hold the Open on where players come from. I think that should be obvious to anyone. Portrush is a terrific golf course and may well be strong enough for an Open, but as we all know, there are other issues of infrastructure, accommodation, roads, what would the commercial success or otherwise of the championship be, that need consideration.

“We are not ruling it out by any stretch of the imagination, but it would have to meet all those criteria, and I don't think it's something that's going to be in any way imminent, but it's certainly something we'll have a look at again in view of the success of the golfers from that part of the world."

Last month Dawson sat down with Golfweek to talk about Open venues and had this to say about the course many feel is the best in the Emerald Isle: “Portrush is probably the strongest golf course that we don’t use. However, the Open has to be a commercial success, and we have some doubts as to whether it would be a commercial success at Royal Portrush.”

Portrush is an hour from Belfast, and there is a limit to how many spectators the area could accommodate. That’s another R&A fear.

“The timing of the Open coincides with a very busy holiday period in Northern Ireland,” Dawson said. “In that area it is impossible to get accommodation at that time of year.”

Rubbish, said Northern Ireland politician David McClarty:

“People use the argument that there's not enough accommodation in the area, well that's nonsense,” McClarty said. “Golf fans have proved they are prepared to travel miles to see the Open, and in Northern Ireland you are never more than two hours from anywhere, so there is plenty of accommodation throughout the country.”

As for the infrastructure around the area and whether it could support the Open Championship, McDowell has the perfect answer.

“When you think of some of the Open venues we go to and some of the golf courses we manage to make it happen on and how tight they are, I think an Open would work at Portrush.”

Indeed, any visitor to Sandwich will verify one fact: if this small coastal town over two hours from London can support an Open Championship then a small coastal town an hour from Belfast should be able to do likewise.

The R&A can’t hold out much longer. The smart money says the championship is heading back to Royal Portrush before 2020.

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