Former winner Darren Clarke admits he never thought it would be possible to contest the Open Championship on home soil.
The R&A announced on Tuesday that Clarke’s home course of Royal Portrush - where his replica Claret Jug is on display – will host the Open in 2019, only the second time golf’s oldest major will have been played outside England and Scotland.
During past decades of violence in the North, the prospect of hosting the Open would have been unthinkable.
And while the peace process has transformed the North, sporadic public disorder still has a tendency to flare in mid-July as a result of loyalist Orange Order parade disputes around the traditional ’Twelfth of July’ commemorations. The 148th Open will be staged from July 18-21.
In recent years trouble has been confined to certain small parts of Belfast, more than 50 miles from Portrush, but 2011 Open champion Clarke concedes he would have been “foolish” to imagine the Open returning to Portrush.
“I played a lot of my golf here, I lived here and was a proud member here, but to think would we ever get through the dark times Northern Ireland has had, to get to this stage where we have the biggest and best tournament in the world, I’d be very foolish to say yes,” the European Ryder Cup captain said.
“Nobody could foresee that coming through in the bad old days, but to see how far we have all come, how far our politicians have moved this part of the country on, it’s been brilliant.”
R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers added: “We spent a lot of time with the Northern Ireland Executive, the tourist board, the club and external advisers working through those particular issues. We are very comfortable that where we stand today, that we will be fine hosting it in July.”
Portrush has not hosted a major championship since the 1951 Open won by Max Faulkner, but the Irish Open drew massive crowds in 2012 and the likes of Clarke, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington – all major champions – lobbied on Portrush’s behalf.
In August last year, club members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the course changes required, with the current 17th and 18th holes on the Dunluce Links used for championship infrastructure and two new holes being created.
McDowell’s brother Gary is a member of the greenkeeping staff at the club and the former US Open champion said: “As a local, when the day comes it’s going to be a great moment. I will be turning 40 that year but I will be expecting to be there and to win a Claret Jug in my home town would be dream stuff.”
McIlroy, who holds the Portrush course record of 61, added: “To hear that the Open is going there in 2019 is a dream come true. I never thought I would be able to play an Open Championship at home. I’m really excited.”
Peter Unsworth, R&A championship committee chairman, said: “We are very much looking forward to bringing The Open to Royal Portrush in 2019 and believe it will be a tremendous venue for the Championship.
“We know there is great anticipation throughout Ireland at the prospect of welcoming the world’s top golfers and it promises to be a hugely memorable week. We are delighted with the progress being made on the course preparations and they will undoubtedly enhance the challenge presented by these historic links.”
The Open is expected to be the biggest sporting event ever held in Northern Ireland and could generate up to £70million for the local economy.
As well as the two new holes, the course has been lengthened by almost 200 yards to 7,337, with the number of bunkers increased by three to 62 – still the lowest of any of the 10 courses on the Open rota.
Clarke was initially sceptical of the changes undertaken by architect Martin Ebert, but added: “Due to being such a fan of the golf course I wasn’t sure about some of them, but when I went round with Martin and he explained them to me I could understand where he was coming from.
“The more I looked at them I could see the changes were going to make the course better. There’s a difference between making it tougher and making it better. He’s making it better and there’s a big difference.
“I can’t praise Martin highly enough as he is providing a modern lift to one of the best courses in the world.
“There’s no reason why we can’t have an Irish Open here after The Open and I’d be hopeful it will come back here. I think the players when they get here, as well as it being the biggest and best tournament in the world, will enjoy the course and the area. The welcome they get here will be second to none.”