Portrush answers Open call

THE RETURN of the Irish Open this year to Royal Portrush will act as a dry run for bringing the British Open Championship to the Dunluce links at the famed Antrim links in the future.

The decision — to be formally announced today — to move the event northward from Killarney comes on the back of the achievements of Northern Ireland’s three major winners in the last two years.

Darren Clarke’s emotional victory in the Open Championship at Sandwich in Kent last summer followed the successive US Open victories of Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy.

All three players — McDowell and Clarke have homes in Portrush — backed the bid to bring the Irish Open to the town’s famous links course.

It is hoped that a successful staging of the Irish Open this June will add further momentum to the campaign to bring the Open Championship itself back to Northern Ireland. The Open has only been staged in the region once before, at Royal Portrush in 1951.

But the three major wins by local golfers prompted a clamour for a return and heaped pressure on governing body the Royal and Ancient (R&A) to bring the tournament across the Irish Sea. After Clarke’s win last year, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson pledged to look again at the issue.

Arlene Foster, the North’s Tourism Minister and British Open champion Darren Clarke also make no secret of their belief that staging the Irish Open at Royal Portrush on June 28-July 1 is a forerunner to bringing one of the four majors to the province in the future.

Official confirmation this year’s Irish Open is going north along with other details will be made at a press conference in the Portrush clubhouse today. It will be attended by Darren Clarke, Ms Foster, George O’Grady, the chief executive of the European Tour and Redmond O’Donoghue, Chairman of Failte Ireland.

This is a major coup for the Irish Open given that it is set to be played on a links of such high renown only three weeks before the British Open at Royal Lytham St Annes. That virtually ensures a high quality field with the big name players anxious to reacquaint themselves with links golf at such an important point in the season.

The Northern Ireland Assembly, in a policy document published in November, included a European Tour event in their 2013 strategy and it now seems as if they have achieved that goal a year early. Clarke has championed Portrush as the ideal venue for the Open on a number of occasions and now that today’s announcement is set to bring the Irish Open back to the north for the first time since 1953, is further convinced that the game’s oldest championship is on its way back.

“It will showcase Royal Portrush in a way that will make it easier for us to get the British Open here”, said Ms Foster. “Royal Portrush could successfully host a smaller event like the Irish Open and then the R & A will look at us in a more meaningful way. That’s what we need to do, to stage some of the intermediate championships before going for the big one.”

Few connected with an event as old (first contested in 1927) and prestigious as the Irish Open would like to see it described in those terms and there will also be keen disappointment that it is going to a location so difficult to access from the southern end of the country.

However, the development comes at a time when golfers from the north hold two of the game’s four major championships and in many respects will be seen as a fitting reward for the achievements of the current US and British Open champions, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, and the 2010 US champion Graeme McDowell.

The Dunluce links at Portrush is regarded as one of the finest in the world and is the only course in the country to have hosted a British Open, the 1951 Championship won by Englishman Max Faulkner. It has staged the Irish Open on four occasions, in 1930 when it was won by Charles Whitcombe; 1937 (Bernard Gadd) and 1947 and ‘49 (Harry Bradshaw).

The Irish Open hasn’t gone north of the border since 1953 when the Scot Eric Brown emerged triumphant at Belvoir Park in Belfast. The news has come as something as a surprise given that plans to stage this year’s tournament at Carton House neared finalisation before Christmas. In mid-December, a senior Tour official said that the tournament would take place “over a parkland course in the greater Dublin area” with Carton near Maynooth as the obvious location. So what happened? It seems at the eleventh hour, northern politicians came on board with a proposition that proved irresistible to the European Tour. It isn’t yet clear whether a commercial sponsor has been found or what the prize fund will be although both the Assembly and Fáilte Ireland will make handsome financial contributions in this regard. Clarke, McIlroy and McDowell command high level sponsorship from a number of companies and there is speculation that some of these will lend their support to the event.

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