5 Things: Royal Portrush proves itself at Irish Open

Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on No. 1 during the final round of the 2012 Irish Open held at Royal Portrush Golf Club.

Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on No. 1 during the final round of the 2012 Irish Open held at Royal Portrush Golf Club.

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland -- Big-time golf returned to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951. The Irish Open was the first big event to be staged over these magnificent links since colorful Englishman Max Faulkner won the Open Championship 62 years ago.

The result? A roaring success. Here are 5 Things to take away from this year’s Irish Open.

• • •

1. Royal Portrush deserves an Open Championship

This Irish Open proved Royal Portrush deserves to have the Open Championship. The tournament was a sell-out before play teed off, and fans came out in their thousands despite incessant rain and cold temperatures. Attendance for the week was 130,785, beating last year’s 85,179 by the proverbial country mile.

The inclusion of locals Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy helped. In fact, their exploits in major championships over the last two years put Portrush back on the map, and Royal Portrush back on the list of potential Open venues.

This felt like an Open Championship. The event ran without a hitch, and was a fantastic test run for a future Open.

The first available slot for the game’s oldest tournament is 2017. The R&A should seriously consider Royal Portrush again. The course deserves it, the fans will support it and it would be a fantastic Open venue.

• • •

2. McIlroy is back on track

It hasn’t been a great few months for Rory McIlroy, but the Irish Open suggests he’s back on track. He never really got into contention to scare the lead, but seems to have his mojo back after making just his second cut of his last six events.

McIlroy had a new driver in his bag, and plans to put it to good use in the upcoming Open Championship at Royal Lytham.

“I think it’s going to make a big difference,” McIlroy said. “It puts less spin on the ball, which is just great in the wind, and it goes 15 yards further.”

McIlroy’s last appearance at Royal Lytham produced a second-place finish. He three-putted the last green to lose the Lytham Trophy to Lloyd Saltman.

In other words, Lytham just might see him add his second major to the U.S. Open he won last year. “I definitely feel like I’ve made a couple of big strides forward since the U.S. Open,” McIlroy said. “As long as I continue to work on it and keep doing the right things then I’m right on track.”

• • •

3. Harrington looking good for Royal Lytham, too

Don’t discount Padraig Harrington at Royal Lytham either. The three-time major winner got into contention here at Royal Portrush and looks to be warming up nicely for the third major of the year.

The Dubliner might have added to his major collection already had he putted better in the Masters and U.S. Open, where he placed eighth and fourth respectively. He should be in contention in the Open Championship.

Harrington hasn’t won since the 2010 Iskandar Johor Open on the Asian Tour. He is without a European or PGA Tour win since the 2008 PGA Championship.

Royal Lytham would be the ideal place to get back into the winner’s circle.

• • •

4. Clarke inspired by home fans

Darren Clarke played all four rounds in a full field tournament for the first time in nearly a year. The defending Open Champion never got into contention, but just making the cut was a bonus for him considering he hasn’t come close to the form he showed at Royal St George’s 12 months ago. No wonder he was full of joy after the second round, instead of his often thunder-faced self.

Clarke will defend the Open Championship at Royal Lytham this month. He isn’t expected to contend for the title, but then again he wasn’t expected to win last year either. He’s played well in Opens at Lytham. He placed third in 2001, and 11th in 1996.

Could lightning strike twice for the Northern Irishman.

• • •

5. More links golf please?

Yes the scoring was low-ish because of the soft conditions, but what a joy to see Europe’s elite play on a proper links like Royal Portrush. A rare treat.

Of the 48 tournaments on this year’s European Tour schedule, only three are being played on true links – the Irish, the Open Championship and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. That’s not enough. You’d have thought the game was invented on some lush parkland course instead of the windswept Fife coastline.

So more links please. Let’s take the game back to where it belongs on a more consistent basis.

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