Portrush will live up to its famous road sign in four weeks’ time when it becomes the “Major Golf Capital of the World” for the first Ulster staging of the Irish Open for 59 years.
And injured Darren Clarke insists he’ll play “on a Zimmer frame” so he can do his bit and help boost the chances of bringing the British Open back to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951.
The British Open champion, 43, this week pulled out of the Scandinavian Masters and the US Open because of a chronic groin strain. But he’s vowed to do everything in his power to make the first tee for the Jun 28 start of what organisers say will be the best attended event on the European Tour this year after the British Open itself.
Crowds of more than 100,000 are expected to flock to the north Antrim links for the first Irish Open held at Royal Portrush since 1947.
“I’d probably play in a zimmer frame if I had to,” said Clarke, who has yet to make a cut this year. “But hopefully I will be fine. I’ll do everything I can to be fit and ready.
He revealed: “I’ve been playing through a bit of pain since Houston and I’m not used to being injured. It was one of those sort of things because I haven’t been playing so well, I wanted to keep on playing but enough’s enough.
“Royal Portrush have been unbelievable in everything they’ve tried to do to get the course ready. Everyone involved deserves a big, big thanks because this is going to be a showcase around the world.”
With a prize fund of €2 million this year, the Irish Open is not one of the elite events in terms of cash. But it is rich in big names with Clarke and fellow Irish Major winners Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Pádraig Harrington joined by US PGA champion Keegan Bradley.
Indeed. while it is still without a title sponsor, it has attracted a host of official partners in Heineken, Bushmills Whiskey, BMW, Dale Farm, Moy Park foods, Emirates Airlines, Ballygowan and financial group Brewin Dolphin.
In fact, the Tour is still hopeful that one of them, or a third party, will step up to fill the vacant title sponsorship slot next year. While the prize fund was slashed from €3m under mobile company 3 to just €1.5m last year, Clarke is adamant that it is still one of the elite events in world golf.
“It’s tough times, we all know that. A €2 million purse is not to be sniffed at,” said Clarke, who first played Portrush when he was 11 and is now an honorary member. “You look at how 3 came in and pushed the prize fund up to possibly unrealistic terms at the time, now what we have is a combination of sponsors getting behind the event.
“I think we’ve done unbelievably well to get it to what it is now. The course has stood the test of time, albeit with a few new tees, but nothing has been done all that much with the greens, and the course is very natural. It’s one of the best links layouts in the world. It’s tough but fair. You can get some courses that are tough and some that are fair but you rarely get the two together.”
The tournament will be a 27,000 sellout on both Saturday and Sunday with at least another 40,000 fans expected to turn out from Tuesday to Friday. And Clarke knows the R&A will be keeping a close eye on the event from a commercial and logistical standpoint with a view to taking the British Open back to Portrush for the first time since Max Faulkner triumphed in 1951.
“I think this is a stepping stone towards the goal of getting the [British] Open back again,” Clarke said. “I know how much work everyone is putting in to make this as successful as possible, not the easiest golf course to get people around infrastructure wise but the Tour have done a wonderful job.
“And in doing what they’ve done and I am sure I wouldn’t be so foolish as to say the R&A won’t be paying attention because I am sure that they will. I’m sure the Monday after the Irish Open the R&A will take a look and say, ‘That was a properly run tournament, we’ve got to take another serious look at taking the [British] Open there’.”
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