Has Open audition been passed?

It is a bit like asking Bruce Springsteen to audition for American Idol, asking Royal Portrush to jump through hoops to get the British Open Championship.

You know The Boss has already proven himself time and time again and has the platinum discs to show for it, yet how would he be judged by a more consumerist, reality television-driven voting public?

It is not a debate about Springsteen’s musical chops, Grammy Awards and critical acclaim answer any of those doubts, but more a question of whether the old stager can still shift units and bring hard cash into the conglomerates that used to be known as record companies.

That is essentially what was asked of the venerable Antrim links last week as the 2012 Irish Open acted as a test run to measure its suitability for a return to the R&A’s Open rota for the first time since 1951.

As far as players and supporters were concerned, the test was passed with flying colours. Royal Portrush welcomed tournament record crowds of 112,280 over the four days and 130,785 including two practice days.

And they saw Jamie Donaldson of Wales win at 18 under par as Harry Colt’s iconic design stood the test of time despite having softened considerably under the deluge of rain that fell before and during the event.

“It felt like an Open,” was the common theme among the competitors as they revelled in the atmosphere generated by the massive galleries and for Rory McIlroy, the world number two and owner of the course record of 61 there, Royal Portrush’s Dunluce links had suitably staked its claim.

“It’s proven a good enough venue for this tournament, it’s held up well,” McIlroy said on Sunday following his top-10 finish. “People were saying 20 under par was going to win it this week but the scoring hasn’t been that low. The weather wasn’t great Saturday but apart from that the conditions have been pretty benign and it still stood up.”

Of course the R&A likes its championship courses fiery, on sun-parched, firm and fast fairways and greens, but even in the height of summer the British and Irish climate can never guarantee that and there are no better challenges in golf than a windy links.

Still, Royal Portrush would need to get tougher and accommodate even larger crowds if the R&A were to consider hosting their major here and Ireland’s leading golfers are comfortable with the notion that the iconic venue could handle such modifications.

“It’s a beast. It’s a behemoth,” Portrush native Graeme McDowell said of the championship his hometown wants to attract. “This is a little dwarf in comparison.

“We have good crowds. Could we handle another 10-15,000 through these gates? It would require a lot of planning but I figure the R&A are pretty good at doing what they do. If the Open Championship doesn’t come here it will be for very good reasons, I’m sure.”

McDowell thinks the European Tour could have accommodated more spectators in seats at the Irish Open, making it more of an “all-seater” tournament and thereby reducing any concerns about the pedestrian traffic flow around the tight links layout.

“I think we’ve been disappointed this week by the lack of grandstands,” McDowell said. “There is a lot of availability, a lot of space around greens to seat people. We could have put 4 to 5,000 around the 17th, down the side of 18th, more corporate (hospitality tents) on the other side (of the 18th fairway). I wish there had been a little more seating out there, it would have been great for the atmosphere.”

Shane Lowry is another Royal Portrush fan, having placed first and second on his two visits to the North of Ireland here during an amateur career which climaxed with victory at the 2009 Irish Open at Baltray. Yet he believes spectators need more room.

“If anything, the only bad thing I’d say is the crowds are too close to the fairways and greens, which would make an Open too easy, I think,” Lowry said. “That’s my opinion, although, in saying that, they don’t have any rough in St Andrews.

“All the rough is trampled down here. If you just miss the fairways you’re fine and stuff like that, which is not normal at an Open.”

As for the course, opinion differs on the work needed to bring the Dunluce links up to Open standard.

“I think you would just turn (the par-fives) nine or 10 into a par four, make it a par-71, or a par-70 if you wanted to toughen it up,” McIlroy said. “I think that’s all you need to do. There’s not much else.”

McIlroy has a point. As par fives, the ninth and 10th holes were the 16th and 17th ranking holes on the course last week, playing at an average of 4.63 and 4.6 shots respectively. Donaldson played them in six under par but as par fours, would have negotiated them in just one under, which means his winning score would have been 13 under rather 18 under, far more palatable.

Paul McGinley, though, would like to see further toughening, with more fairway bunkers and longer holes, and does not believe the R&A has been scared off by low scoring at the Irish Open.

“I think the R&A see the bigger picture, much bigger picture, in that,” McGinley said. “The scoring is a smaller picture. The big picture is how the town of Portrush has been able to handle such a big event with record crowds. The other big picture is the quality of the golf course. There has nothing been done to this course virtually, it’s the first pro tournament in what 40 or 50 years and obviously the technology is completely different to what it was back then. (They’ve) put in a few smaller tee boxes but if something like the Open was to come here, potentially there’s the need to put in a few new tee boxes, adding some fairway bunkers. It has so much potential.”

As far as McDowell is concerned, the audition has been passed and with a few of the tweaks outlined an Open Championship will once again grace his beloved linksland, the earliest possible slot coming in 2017.

‘I feel like we can handle it now and I think we have proven our case,” he said. “All we can do is put our chips in the middle of the table and say ‘we’re all in’.”

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