North thinks big after landing two Irish Opens

A day might be a long time in politics but when it comes to future of the Irish Open — and a possible Northern Ireland staging of the British Open — changes are coming equally thick and fast.

Where we once feared yearly for its future following the loss of title sponsors 3 in 2010, the venues for three of next four championships have all been announced within 80 days.

Following the official confirmation in January that Cork’s Fota Island Resort will host this year’s Irish Open from June 19-22, the European Tour confirmed that the 2015 event will be played at Royal County Down from May 28-31 with the Lough Erne Resort in Co. Fermanagh getting the nod for 2017.

Next year’s end of May date has been confirmed because there are just four weeks between the US Open and the British Open and top Irish players such as Rory McIlroy — the “catalyst” of the move to Royal County Down according to the Tour’s chief executive George O’Grady — would find it more convenient to head from the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth to the following week’s Irish Open.

The venue for the 2016 Irish Open remains up in the air and while O’Grady confirmed that Fota Island are currently the front-runners, US billionaire Donald Trump may be added to the mix if his plans to completely revamp Doonbeg get approval and the project can be completed in time.

A date of 2019 has been spoken about openly by European players for the North hosting a British Open and Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson went out of his way yesterday to insist that while there are infrastructural problems to be ironed out, this is more than just talk.

There was much disquiet from sponsors HSBC when the British Open was played at men-only Muirfield last year and with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews set to vote in September on admitting women members for the first time in its 260-year history, pressure will build on Muirfield, Royal St George’s and Royal Troon to follow suit.

They are part of the current nine-course British Open rotation but the staging of the Irish Open at Royal County Down could also set up the world famous Newcastle course, ranked No 4 in the world by Golf Digest, as a British Open rival to Royal Portrush.

As one seasoned Royal County Down observer said yesterday: “When Graeme McDowell came here for a friendly game last year, he walked off the 18th and said, ‘I’ll always be a Portrush man but you just have to put up the grandstands and you could have the [British] Open here tomorrow.”

It was confirmed yesterday that 20,000 a day could be accommodated at the venue.

As for the field at Royal County Down, it appears that McIlroy has been working behind the scenes to persuade his pals on the US PGA Tour to make the trip next year.

Speaking from Houston, McIlroy said: “Royal County Down is a golf course that I have really fond memories of having played the Walker Cup there in 2007.

“It is great to see the Irish Open back on a links course. And also for the Irish Open to be coming back North [in 2017] at the Lough Erne Resort, where I was the touring professional for a number of years.

“It will present a really good test for the guys so it’s a great announcement, great for Irish golf as a whole and I look forward to teeing it up at both venues.”

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