An Englishman and an Irishman competed in the final pairing of the Open Championship in Northern Ireland. Sounds like the start of a bad joke, but that was how the script for the 148th Open at Royal Portrush played out.
Who could have predicted a script with Irishman Shane Lowry winning on home soil? They may well run out of Guinness. One thing is for sure: it won’t be another 68 more years before the next Open Championship.
“I’d be very surprised if it’s not back here in the next 10 years,” Lowry said in his winner’s press conference.
It can’t happen soon enough. The reviews for Royal Portrush’s maiden Open are in and it met or exceeded every expectation. I can’t remember another time a new venue has been so universally beloved.
“That’s not something you hear every year,” the 2018 Open champion Francesco Molinari confirmed.
It goes beyond not a cross word being uttered about the Harry Colt layout or the modifications made by Martin Ebert.
“Everyone is telling me this is their favourite Open venue they’ve ever been to,” said Graeme McDowell.
Don’t just take the Northern Irishman’s word for it. Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick was also impressed. He said he’d like the Open to return here regularly.
“It’s better than a few of the courses in the Open rota,” he said.
“I think it is a popular spot and I hope it will come back soon.”
Just how soon? That’s a good question. There are currently 10 courses in the Open rota. As part of Royal Portrush’s agreement to make course changes and spend for the necessary infrastructure to host the Open, the club was promised two more Opens in the next 30 years. The next available date is 2024, and rumours are circulating that Portrush was such a rousing success that it could be in line for a return visit sooner than expected.
Royal Portrush is one of those places that simply make you want to throw the bag over your shoulder and go play. As an Open venue, it provided a thorough examination for the pros. They got the full Royal Portrush experience: they played it bathed in sunshine, flat calm, with wind from different directions and a little “Portrush Armageddon,” as McDowell put it.
It surrendered a course-record 63 to Shane Lowry when the wind laid down on Saturday, and showed its teeth on Sunday when lashing rain and gusting wind prevented any player in the last 10 groups from breaking par. Still, you couldn’t find a player who didn’t think it was a fair and challenging test.
“Which is high praise from the best players in the world who get to play the best courses on the planet,” McDowell said.
Former five-time Open champion Tom Watson, who played Royal Portrush recently for a corporate gig, tabbed it his top links course. He’s not alone.
I overheard one TV commentator propose to one of his colleagues a revised Open rota trimmed in half.
“How about we simplify the rota to St. Andrews and Muirfield in Scotland, Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham & St. Annes in England and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland,” he said.
No one voiced an objection. That gives a sense of the high regard with which Royal Portrush is now held.
It doesn’t hurt that the Open was a commercial success, too. The sell-out of 237,000 tickets produced some lively crowds.
Rory McIlroy’s charge to make the cut on Friday, which fell short, had the feel of a Ryder Cup and Saturday spectators stood 20 deep on a hillside outside scoring with only a white-picket fence keeping them from engulfing Lowry as he did a host of post-round TV obligations and serenaded him in song.
They inserted his name into the lyrics of “Winter Wonderland” and “Hey Baby.” It was quite the scene.
It takes a village to put on an event of this magnitude, and R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers took note of how seamlessly what seemed like a far fetched dream to bring the Open back to Portrush became reality.
“I have never been to an Open Championship where so many people as I’m walking around, which I do every day, have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you for what you have done.’ It’s thank you to lots and lots of people,” Slumbers said.
Chalk it up as a proud moment for Portrush, this cute, little resort town by the Atlantic Ocean in County Antrim, which proved it can host a big-time event with the best of them.
“I’m proud of Portrush and proud of Northern Ireland and proud of Ireland,” McDowell said.
No surprise that McDowell is among the vocal supporters for the Open coming back sooner rather than later. He said he went so far as to give an impassioned plea to the powers-that-be.
“I’ve heard the whispers as well that we could be back here as soon as five years from now,” McDowell said.
“To keep that Portrush train rolling, it would be huge. If we have to wait another 10 years, the icing might rub off between now and then. People might forget a little.”
Forget the time the burly Irishman from county Offlay threw the biggest party the Island’s ever know? Not likely.
The 148th Open was unforgettable and it can’t come back for an encore soon enough.