Portrush teed up with pride as British Open comes to town
Presence of the golf Major in Co Antrim is culmination of more than 10 years’ work
Royal Portrush golf club in Co Antrim during practice for the 148th Open. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
In the trophy cabinet in the clubhouse at Royal Portrush golf club the Claret Jug is waiting. Not the real one – this is a replica belonging to 2011 winner Darren Clarke.
Ladies’ captain Liz McCartney explains that each winner is given his own copy of the trophy. After his victory Clarke presented his winner’s medal to his home club and loaned them his trophy.
“It’s our third winner’s medal,” says McCartney. She points out two others – that of Fred Daly, a Royal Portrush member who won the Open in 1947, and Max Faulkner, who triumphed in 1951, the last time the competition was held at Royal Portrush.
It is a testament to the club’s unique links to the tournament. Royal Portrush – in the seaside town of the same name on the north Co Antrim coast – is the only club in Ireland ever to have hosted the Open. One of the world’s four golf Majors, it is the only one held outside the US.
In the clubhouse there is no debate as to its significance. “It’s the pinnacle tournament”, says McCartney. “It is the best golf tournament in the world, and it’s the one the players want to win.”
“I think it’s what the course deserves as well,” says fellow club member Richard Beggs. “We’re regularly in the top 10 courses in the world, and it sort of confirms the status of that.”
Today, Portrush looks picture-perfect. The sun is shining, the greens gleam against the bright blue of the sea which is the course’s northern boundary. In the distance is a Ferris wheel. Even without the Open, Portrush is busy during the summer, yet even early in the morning the pavements are crowded with people on their way to the Open.
Its presence at Royal Portrush is the culmination of more than 10 years of work for the club. A tournament committee was formed in 2007-08, though the Open was always the “big aspiration”, says David McMullan, who is now deputy chairman of the club’s championship committee.
A turning point came in 2012 when Royal Portrush was given the opportunity to host the Irish Open at short notice.
“It showed there was potential,” says McMullan. “In 2014, the amateur open championship was held here, and it was then announced that Royal Portrush could potentially go back on the rota for hosting the Open.”
Royal Portrush will host the tournament three more times over the next three decades, with all the attendant economic spin-offs. The Royal and Ancient (R&A) – the Open’s governing body – estimates that this year’s competition will bring £80 million to the Northern Ireland economy.
At the club the scale of the impact is easy to see. About 2,000 people have been working on site since April, and during tournament week there is incidental employment for many more.
“I was sitting beside Martin Slumbers, who is the chief executive of the R&A, the other night,” says McCartney, “and he gave a lot of credit to [the former deputy first minister] Martin McGuinness. He said he thought it was a real shame he wasn’t here to see it.”
“Already you can see the benefit of the investment this week,” says McMullan. “The whole area has had a lift. Just look at the regeneration in the town. Portrush has never looked as well.”
Among the new recruits keeping the course spick and span are 250 teenagers from local schools. They are on litter-picking duty; Beggs is in charge. As well as being a member of the club’s championship committee, he is also a PE teacher at the nearby Coleraine Grammar School.
“When it’s a question of who can look after 250 kids, there weren’t too many people putting their hands up at that stage,” says Beggs.
He was among the team who travelled from Royal Portrush to Carnoustie this time last year to learn from Scottish counterparts how the Open was done.
“It really gave you an insight – an ‘oh my goodness, what have we done?’ kind of moment,” says Beggs. “But it’s been brilliant. There’s a real buzz about the place, and it’s been like that probably for the last six months.”
He gestures at the sunshine. “I don’t know how much we had to pay for this, but I hope the meter doesn’t run out by the end of the week.”
From the first floor of the clubhouse at Royal Portrush there is a panoramic view over the course. As McCartney, McMullan and Beggs gaze out through the windows, much seems familiar, particularly to anyone who has watched the coverage of the Open over the years. This year there is no television screen, just the famous stands and the Open logo unfolding before them.
“I think we feel so lucky,” says McCartney. “I know when I arrived in Carnoustie last year, the first thing I thought is ‘wow, we are so lucky’, because I hadn’t been at an Open before and I couldn’t believe the scale of it, and I thought, ‘that is coming to us’.”
“The first thing that’s struck me is that everybody is happy and smiling,” says McMullan. “Of course, as members it’s something we’re really proud of, bringing the Open here, but I think the general population is proud too.
“For us at the club there’s pride just in seeing everybody here enjoying themselves, there’s pride in seeing the course in such great condition, and then there’s the pride in seeing the top golfers of the world out playing your course.”
Beggs agrees. “I’ve lived in Portrush practically all my life, and you can’t help but feel proud when you look around.
“There have been so many moments, even whenever the build first started in April, and we’d be out playing and seeing the stands going up around us.
“We were saying, if the guys who were building the stands had a pound for everyone who pretended they were walking up and waving their hands at the crowd they’d be very rich men.”
Did he pose for a photograph? Beggs laughs. “Oh yes. I think that’s everybody’s Facebook profile photo now.”