Darren Clarke confessed that never in his wildest dreams during the “dark days” of the Troubles could he have imagined the Open Championship returning to Northern Ireland.
However, with the R&A announcing at Royal Portrush yesterday that the 148th Open will be played over a redesigned Dunluce links from 18-21 July 2019, the 2011 Open champion believes the “biggest and best tournament in the world” will be played on a course that will soon be considered one of the top five on the planet.
While it’s been known since July last year that The Open was coming back to Portrush for the first time since 1951, Clarke hailed official confirmation of the 2019 date as “absolutely huge for Northern Ireland and, indeed, Ireland as a whole”.
Clarke said: “I knew it had been here at Royal Portrush before. Did I think we would get through the dark times that Northern Ireland has had to get the biggest and best tournament in the world? I’d be very foolish to say yes.
“Nobody could foresee that coming about during the bad old days. But to see how far we have all come, how far we have moved this part of the country on, it has been brilliant.”
He pointed to three major wins by Pádraig Harrington followed by European Tour chief George O’Grady’s decision to take the Irish Open to Portrush in 2012 as the two big keys to the R&A’s decision.
“I think George O’Grady deserves the credit for that,” Clarke said of the sellout Irish Open of 2012 that persuaded the R&A to consider Royal Portrush for the Open. “It was a very brave and courageous move for George to bring the Irish Open back North again. And I think his effort in the whole thing shouldn’t be underestimated.”
Now a Portrush resident and with his Silver Medal and replica Claret Jug on display in the Royal Portrush clubhouse, Clarke talks with the pride of a local of the changes being made by architect Martin Ebert to the masterpiece left behind when Harry Colt revamped the course in 1932.
“I think Harry Colt would have been proud of the changes Martin is making and I think when it comes to that final score on Sunday afternoon, it will be very, very close to the minus three Max Faulkner won with open that Sunday in 1951,” Clarke said, adding. “I just hope I’m on minus four!”
His quip drew laughs from the assembled dignitaries that included Acting Northern Irleland First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who are expecting a tourism bonanza to the tune of £70m (€95m).
In praising Foster, O’Grady and the formidable Royal Portrush secretary manager Wilma Erskine for their work, Clarke singled out former R&A chief executive, Peter Dawson for praise.
“I’m glad he listened to all our pleas,” Clarke said. “I was speaking to him all the time. He listened, and Wilma was on the phone to him, Rory (McIlroy) was speaking to him, and Graeme (McDowell) was speaking to him, so thank you very much for listening to us and for having us here.”
While the tournament looks likely to return every nine or 10 years for at least two more editions, Dawson’s successor as chief executive, Martin Slumbers, would only confirm 2019.
“The best way to get a harder decision (on coming back) is to have a fantastic Open in 2019,” Slumbers said.
With the current 17th and 18th holes on the Dunluce Links to be used for site the tented village, two new holes have been created on the adjoining Valley Links, the new par-five seventh (572 yards) and par-four eighth (435 yards), with the championship finishing on the current 16th.
The overall length of the course will increase by just under 200 yards to 7,337 yards with par reduced from 72 to 71 and the number of bunkers increasing by three to 62 The work is due to be complete by the middle of 2016 with the two new holes being given time to grow-in ahead of the following season.
McIlroy, who shot an 11 under 61 over the Dunluce Links as a 16-year-old in the 2005 North Of Ireland Championship, welcomed the news.
But while Clarke did not dare suggest that the changes will “Rory-proof” the track, he certainly believes that another 61 by the former world No 1 would be well worth watching.
Laughing, Clarke said: “Rory has done and will do anything. But it will be a very good 61.”
He expects the revamped course to become one of the world’s best, insisting: “If it is not ranked amongst the top five after these changes, I will be amazed.
“Going back to the Irish Open in 2012, for players to have it as their favourite tournament, blowing a gale in pouring rain, speaks volumes about the course.
“When I looked at the changes initially, I was sceptical. But whenever I went round with Martin and he explained them to me, I could really understand them.
“The more I looked at them, I thought, that’s going to make this even better. There is a difference between making it better and making it tougher. He is making it better. That is the difference.
“Is 7,337 yards long enough? This golf course, as narrow as it is, is always going to be long enough. Rarely are you going to get a flat calm day here. But with that length to it and as narrow as it is, I can’t see that being a problem.”
The Irish Open will not return to Royal Portrush until 2020 at the earliest while the North of Ireland Championship will be played on another links next year and in 2019.
An announcement on the “North” is expected next week but Portstewart, which is also a contender to host the Irish Open in 2017, is favourite to step into the breach.
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