After 68 long years, one still has to commend the R&A’s bravery to entrust Royal Portrush once more with the stewardship of the jewel in their crown — the Open Championship.
It would have been much easier for them to have returned to an already-proven venue but, much like the GAA’s opening up of Croke Park, their decision to award the Open Championship to Royal Portrush has hopefully created yet another seminal moment in sport, while also bridging a cultural divide.
And you feel that no one appreciates that more than the tireless secretary-manager of the club, Wilma Erskine, and the greater Northern Ireland community of golfers and non-golfers alike. In the midst of the increasing uncertainties around the world — and especially for the island of Ireland with a looming Brexit — it is an important moment for Northern Ireland to send out a very clear message to the rest of the world that it has moved on, while never forgetting its past.
For Darren Clarke, who grew up in those dark, dark days of the Troubles, having the Open Championship in Northern Ireland during his heyday was never an option — but now that it is, he is relishing the fact that the eyes of the world will be fixed firmly on his homeland this weekend. Clarke may no longer be very competitive on this stage, but he still has much to offer in terms of its positive promotion.
To the worldwide audience, that means changing the narrative and showing them what an exciting, vibrant, and beautiful place Northern Ireland is. For an ever-maturing Northern Irish society, bubbling with enough infectious enthusiasm, there should be great pride in knowing that one of the world’s greatest golfing venues is back on the world stage.
For those who have never been to an Open Championship, it presents challenges on a different scale to almost every other tournament. This year will be no different for the thousands expected to attend the four days of competition.
With only four roads and a small railway station, the co-ordination of the strategic traffic plan must be causing many sleepless nights, but everything is possible when there is the will to succeed, and Royal Portrush will never be found wanting in that department.
From a fan’s perspective, Royal Portrush is a very creditable course to host the Open Championship. It is testing, but fair, with all of the main challenges presented in front of the players. With fair weather forecast, fans can easily take advantage of watching many groups play from the strategically-placed stands, or indeed from the vast duneland which provides natural vantage points, especially down to the 13th and 17th greens.
In order to ease access around the course, man-made tunnels have also been built to take players from the eighth green to the ninth tee and from the 10th green to the 11th tee, in what is always a busy part of the course. As for the course itself, a number of hole changes have been necessary to facilitate the require- ments of staging an event of this scale.
By far the biggest change has been the loss of the original 17th and 18th holes to host the tented village. Agreeing to such significant change was pivotal to the event returning to this famed venue.
The two new holes — the par-five seventh and par-four eighth — were built on the site of the old fifth and sixth holes on the scenic part of the Valley Course, where they cut through the dunes.
Portrush’s strength lies in the fact that all of the holes continuously change direction, something the players will have to get used to, but with no real wind forecast to challenge the players this week, you can expect low scoring on a course where there are no hidden agendas.
Playing 7,344 yards from the tips, players will be stunned by the beauty of the course. The crucial holes will be the likes of the fourth (the 482 yard par-four Fred Daly) with its narrow tee shot and its mounded second; the 11th (Tavern), a 474-yard par-four, which has a very narrow green with a lot of trouble around it; and Calamity, the 16th hole, which is a par-three of 236 yards.
All of the Irish players will have already built up a huge knowledge base over time but, as we witnessed just a couple of weeks ago in Lahinch, when the weather is benign, that knowledge will really only count for something if you are in contention on the Sunday afternoon.
Can Rory shoulder the burden of expectation and putt well enough to put himself into contention? Is Rahm going to continue his Irish romance and can Tiger roll back the years once more? It promises to be a fascinating contest at this most worthy venue.