Where to in 2012?

IN advocating what will seem a somewhat heretical suggestion, I am in no way denigrating either the current venue, Killarney, or the many other outstanding courses that have staged our national Open over the years.

In fact, the status of the championship owes much to the many great tournaments that have unfolded at the likes of Portmarnock and Royal Dublin, Mount Juliet and Druids Glen, Ballybunion and Baltray, Fota Island and Adare Manor — before we ever get to Killarney.

Significantly, though, there was a time back in the 1980s and 90s when PJ Carroll, the original and most benevolent and far-sighted of sponsors, felt it just didn’t make sense to move the event out of the greater Dublin area and it wasn’t until it spread its wings and moved to Killarney in 1991 that the country as a whole was allowed to embrace the event.

However, in all that time, the northern end of the country was ignored, largely because Carrolls and their successors as sponsors (Murphys, Nissan, Adare Manor and 3) conducted their business in the 26 counties.

From time to time, rumour abounded about the likelihood of a change to one of the many outstanding courses in the north. Inevitably, the famous links at Royal Portrush and Royal County Down were deemed the most likely host venues, even if such a view tended to overlook at least two other outstanding seaside layouts, Portstewart and Castlerock, and a string of superb parkland courses such as Malone, Royal Belfast and Belvoir Park.

While Killarney was always a ‘banker’ for this year’s championship after the great success they made of it 12 months ago, the chances are that it will move on again in 2012. And if the rumour machine linking it with a major international title sponsor is on the money, there seems absolutely no reason for not heading north, all the more so now that Fáilte Ireland, a 32-county body, continues to contribute a significant sum of money towards the prize fund.

Not surprisingly, given that he was born and grew up in the famous Antrim golfing town, 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell has rowed in behind Portrush as the host venue. He has discussed the subject with several influential people north of the border, including, of course, Rory McIlroy, and the pair have promised to do all they can to realise their ambition.

“I know Rory would be behind it with the potential of also getting the British Open back to Portrush, that would be something”, says G-Mac. “That is a dream of mine. Okay, to play the Open at Portrush may be a wild dream but to play an Irish Open there is an achievable dream and I will do everything I can to make it happen.”

McDowell is correct on several counts, not least accepting that putting on a modern-day British Open in his home town is a pipedream. David Hill, the recently retired Royal & Ancient championship director, is himself a native of Portrush and some years ago looked into the possibility of bringing the game’s oldest Major championship back to where Max Faulkner triumphed on its only staging in this country back in 1951.

While accepting that the links itself would be up to the mark provided a few significant alterations were implemented, Hill reluctantly came to the conclusion that it just didn’t measure up, chiefly in the area of getting something like 50,000 spectators around the course on each of the four days.

That view was reiterated last week at Royal St George’s by Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A. On the one hand, he lauded the links as one of the best in the world, on the other he pointed out that the road network, the lack of hotel beds and other factors were short of what was required.

He promised the R&A would examine the proposition again but you got his drift. Thanks but no thanks.

The Irish Open, however, is a different proposition and Portrush has everything to commend it for a tournament of that size. First and foremost, it is a pure, out and out classic links, boasting a series of outstanding natural holes, challenging par fours, shortish but tricky par fives and a number of marvellous one-shotters, highlighted by the 14th, known the world over as “Calamity Corner”. The fairways and greens are lined by towering dunes that make for excellent spectator viewing while the golfing atmosphere of the town is so pervasive that it puts one in mind of that prevailing in Lahinch.

Plus there’s the undeniable fact that Northern Ireland deserves an Irish Open. Many of the game’s finest have come — and continue to do so — from this small but remarkable piece of golfing territory. Another Portrush man, Fred Daly, became the first Irish winner of a Major championship at Hoylake in 1947, while the province has produced a constant flow of magnificent golfers (such as Ronan Rafferty and David Feherty right up to today’s trio).

No matter how enthusiastic the fans in Killarney may be this week, can you just imagine the reception Clarke, McIlroy, McDowell and the others would receive from the golf-mad and knowledgeable Ulster golf fans should the championship take place at Portrush over the next year or so?

That would be something very special indeed.

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