Royal Portrush has passed the first hurdle in plans to upgrade its courses and bring back the Open Championship by 2019.
A special meeting of members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the first redevelopment of the world-renowned links in the 63 years since it hosted the major tournament.
Only two of the 237 who attended the Magherabuoy Hotel in Portrush on Friday refused to back the plans in a show of hands, with insiders suggesting the opponents – two men from one family and in their 30s – were voting against it for a bet or a joke.
Philip Tweedie, a past captain and current member of the club’s tournament committee, said there was a feeling of excitement about the progress.
“We always wanted to have a unanimous decision as much as possible so there was unity in the club and we think that is what we have achieved,” he said.
A planning application is expected to be made by mid-October but authorities are not likely to make a decision until possibly next April.
In an attempt to expedite the process and avoid confrontation with environmentalists, the club has already undertaken ecology reports on the dune system.
Work is being tentatively planned for autumn-winter next year.
The first redevelopment will be on the Valley course alongside work on new greens on the Dunluce course, but any significant infrastructure changes are being planned not to coincide with bird-nesting season.
Mr Tweedie added: “Everything has got to improve and strengthen. Ultimately what we are working on the Dunluce and Valley links are creating stronger courses that are fit for Open competitive golf.”
The changes will involve taking two holes out of the Valley course and creating three new holes, plans which Mr Tweedie described as “stunning”.
Royal Portrush has undergone seven significant changes since the course first opened as The County Club in 1888 but no development work has been done in the decades since the Open visited in 1951.
The R&A, organiser of the Open, has been notified of the decision.
The hour-long hotel meeting on Friday night was held after detailed planning by the club’s management including architect Martin Ebert, laying the groundwork with a model exhibition and maps in the clubhouse to show all the changes.
Members were taken on tours of the prestigious Dunluce Links in groups of 40 or 50 for experts to walk and talk them through the redevelopment.
The Dunluce course will be improved to a par 71 of 7,337 yards. Among the changes will be new greens – the eighth will be a two-tier and the par-five ninth will become a par four.
Some new bunkers will be dug while the current practice ground will be used for tentage.
A 75-page brochure has been made available, primarily for members, to outline how the changes will alter the courses.
Mr Tweedie added: “It’s a massive sense of excitement in terms of getting the opportunity to get the course strengthened and enhanced. The opportunity it’s bringing for so many people in terms of members and then in terms of the general public, for Portrush, for Northern Ireland and for Ireland.”
Royal Portrush was added to the Open rota in June, with 2019 a potential date for its long-awaited return to major golf.
The decision was sparked in part by the record-breaking attendance at the 2012 Irish Open at the venue.
The spectacular course on the scenic Causeway coast is the only venue outside England and Scotland that has staged the Open.
Several major championship victories by local superstars Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke since 2010 have added impetus to the campaign to bring the championship back, with all three lobbying on behalf of the course.
The R&A envisages Royal Portrush hosting the tournament on a regular basis in the future.