Royal Portrush had to be ready for change to get British Open
‘What is happening here on site and to the golf course is unbelievable,’ says head pro
The fifth green at Royal Portrush. Photo: Getty Images
The contractors came in long before any championship action unfolds, and they will be there long after too. Yet their work up to this point makes it all feel very real indeed, and the waiting is almost over. The return of the British Open to Royal Portrush is finally in focus.
It is almost a decade since the notion of the British Open returning to the Causeway Coast after 68 years was first mooted. In some ways it seemed like an eternity, always out there on the horizon, far enough not to get carried away amongst the day-to-day minutiae. The flip side, of course, is everything within Irish golf for the last 10 years has brought us to this point.
“The transformation has been extraordinary. What is happening here on site and to the golf course is unbelievable,” says Gary McNeill, Royal Portrush head PGA professional, while overlooking the first and 18th grandstands from the clubhouse lounge.
“It’s funny, for years you sit through planning meetings about all the various things that will take place, but nothing prepares you for the changes. There are so many people and contractors involved in making this championship happen.
“The scale of it now really is striking, particularly the wraparound grandstand at the 18th and the iconic yellow leaderboard. The whole place has come alive in a few short weeks, and it does make it feel very real now.”
McNeill is not one to get carried away, but even he is in awe of the infrastructure and military precision with which the R&A manages to bring the biggest show in golf to town. The former Irish international is in his 20th year of service at the famous Antrim venue. He and his family live a wedge shot away from the clubhouse, and have enjoyed front-row viewing as Portrush gears up for arguably the most important week in the history of Irish golf.
New road network
It is true that the moment the final putt drops and the “Champion Golfer of the Year” is announced, attentions turn almost immediately to the following year’s event. McNeill noticed a spike in activity from last autumn before ramping up again since March.
“There has been much activity in recent months when the R&A set up the contractors’ compound from the Dunluce Road. All deliveries that come on site go through there. There’s a whole new road network on the course so vehicles and teleporters can move easily around the links without tearing it up. Let’s just say those roads have been well used in recent weeks.”
Members have still been able to get their golf. During winter The Dunluce was closed so members had both courses to themselves. Timesheets opened to visitors again from April 1st, with mats in operation on the fairways. From June there has been no visitor play except member guests for the first half of the month. The club then handed over the course to the R&A from June 30th for final preparations to take place.
Work carried out over The Dunluce Links has been sensational, particularly the iconic 18th grandstands that will hold over 4,300 spectators. After the much-documented course changes by Martin Ebert and his team, the 18th is now the old 16th from the original Harry Colt design. Making this the closing hole was one of the masterstrokes, a fantastic dogleg left to right from an elevated tee. The extended 470-yard par four gets more interesting the closer players get to the hole with three bunkers in the eye-line, a difficult run off left and elevation into the green.
“It’s a great finishing hole with a real stadium feel. This amphitheatre will certainly get the heart rate going on Sunday afternoon,” says McNeill.
Every British Open Championship undergoes change and review. It’s an essential part of the process to meet the demands of technology and to create a fair yet testing links examination.
The biggest undertaking was losing the original 17th and 18th holes to house the main tented village and to create two brand new holes, the seventh and eighth. Agreeing to such significant change was pivotal to the event returning to Portrush.
Although the club originated in 1888, the course was laid out by Colt in the 1930s. “In those days the clubhouse used to be in the town beside the railway station. The building is still there – where the British Legion club is now,” says McNeill. “Land was then needed for the school, and the holes nearer the town were conceded and members moved to the current clubhouse, formerly the Holyrood Hotel.”
That layout remained for some 60 years. Around the millennium, when Royal Portrush had become a perennial home of the Senior British Open, many felt “the course would benefit from lengthening some of the holes and Donald Steel and Ebert oversaw the work”, added McNeill.
Fast forward to the record breaking Irish Open in 2012 when over 112,000 spectators came through the gates at Portrush, and that upgraded course was essentially in play for Jamie Donaldson’s win.
By now questions were being asked if Portrush could stage the British Open. McNeill says there was momentum ever since Graeme McDowell’s US Open win in 2010 plus the other Irish Majors that followed, not to mention Pádraig Harrington’s trailblazing triumphs in 2007 and 2008.
“Certainly there was an R&A presence at the Irish Open in 2012 and other subsequent visits followed. Discussions always came back to the 17th and 18th, that piece of land had to be given up if the R&A could arrange for the design of two new holes.
“Proposals were drawn up, visuals presented to members, an egm at the Magherabuoy Hotel and the course changes were ratified by some 400 members. By 2014 the prospect of The Open coming to Royal Portrush became very real. In 2015 we were formally invited on to The Open rotation again.
“This was basically the deal. It couldn’t happen without the two new holes. To cut a long story short, the work was carried out by Ebert and his team, and they [the holes] have been open for three years,” says McNeill.
The two new holes, the par-five seventh and par-four eighth, were built on the site of the old fifth and sixth holes on the Valley Course. “They are situated in the most scenic part of the course too,” says McNeill. “High tees and greens with fairways cutting through the dunes and valleys.”
It does look as though the new holes have been there forever, they blend in seamlessly. Consensus indicates a preference for the slinging dogleg eighth to the higher ground. Personally,I prefer the par-five seventh. Aesthetically very pleasing, it could be viewed as a slog for club golfers at 590 yards from the tips, but pros should still see it as an opportunity.
Holes have been extended and stretched throughout the course, with new tees and bunkers strategically positioned to ensure a major test. The course will measure around 7,400 yards next week. During our round we bumped into Gary McDowell, Graeme’s brother, while working on the difficult par-four 14th. Gary is part of course manager Graeme Beatt’s team that will swell to more than 60 green keepers for the tournament itself.
Having played The Dunluce Links a number of times, it escaped me how treacherous some of the elevated greens can be. The 14th is now a perfect case in point where any errant approach shot left will be swallowed up by a cavernous greenside bunker.
Asked how players might plot their way around Portrush, McNeill says: “The first six holes could present opportunities, but the start of any round takes time for nerves to settle. There is a tough middle section and anything could happen on the final third.”
“White Rocks” is the signature par-four fifth that will undoubtedly entice bombers to have a go if played around 350 yards by pushing markers forward on the elevated tee. The risk to this reward is out of bounds awaits just a matter of feet behind the putting surface.
The final stretch includes the venue’s famous “Calamity Corner”, the par-three 16th measuring 236 yards from the back corner and over a chasm, usually with a prevailing right to left wind slightly against.
“No two holes run consecutively in the same direction, always twisting and turning. Players will have to deal with different wind directions and plateaued greens. That said, there is nothing tricked up about the course, no hidden agendas,” says McNeill, who in his Ireland days played alongside Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley.
McNeill says Grant Moir and his team at the R&A have worked hard to create firm but fair links putting surfaces. They will likely run around 9-10 on the stimpmeter because they are wary of elevated greens and wind.
“I honestly believe Royal Portrush has a blend of all the things that are great about Open Championship venues. It has the difficulty of a Carnoustie or Birkdale, the scenery of Turnberry plus the fairness of a Muirfield or Hoylake.”
What can the fans expect when making their way around the course?
There are a number of stands strategically placed but the vast duneland provides natural vantage points, especially a view down to the 13th green that almost backs on to the 17th green at “Purgatory”.
Man-made tunnels were also built to take players from the eighth green to the ninth tee and from the 10th green to the 11th tee in what will be a busy part of the course. There really has been no stone left unturned for a Major that will attract 44,750 spectators daily on championship days and in the region of 250,000 for the week.
“Given the unprecedented demand for tickets, the R&A could probably have doubled the sales figures,” says McNeill. “However, it’s very much about the experience for spectators when they get here rather than cramming people in and run the risk of having to queue for everything.”
McNeill confirmed spectators will be able to come and go at the start of the week but during championship days patrons will not be allowed to leave and re-enter the course. How has this been received by the local business community?
“By and large The Open has been well received. Naturally there have been a few challenges along the way, but there will be a genuine legacy for the town; renewed streetscapes, new pavements and walkways and general investment in the area. Okay, the week of the Championship will be a bit of an unknown, but thousands of people will still need somewhere to eat and sleep.
“It’s easy to forget that a lot of contractors are in Portrush for weeks and months before and after the event, which brings a lot of investment into the town.”
The 2012 Irish Open was put together relatively quickly after dates flipped with Carton House to bring the European Tour event forward by a year. At the time questions were raised about external infrastructure and how the venue would cope.
“The 2012 Irish Open dispelled all of those myths, both on and off the golf course,” says McNeill. “The R&A were present to see how things ran and almost to test the water. We proved we could deliver. The question was always the infrastructure, not enough hotels, roads aren’t good enough, where would everyone park, how would you get spectators round the course? We got it all.
“At the time is was Coleraine Borough Council, the PSNI, Translink, the Roads Authority, the European Tour, everyone came together to make it happen. The Park & Ride was a slick operation and the same will apply for The Open. There will even be Park & Ride from the course into town for anyone who wants a trip to Barry’s amusements or the beach.”
The British Open is unquestionably a different animal and the challenges are on a different scale. That said, Portrush has been working with the R&A for years, with people like Wilma Erskine and Portrush’s Open Championship committee and chairman John Bamber playing key roles.
“Wilma, our secretary manager, has been instrumental from the outset. She has been the driving force in bringing The Open to Royal Portrush. I don’t think any of this would be happening right now without Wilma,” said McNeill, the original G-Mac of Irish golf, who also tipped his hat to some of his peers and Major champions.
“There was a noticeable shift when Graeme won the US Open in 2010, Rory won the following year, then next thing Clarkey [Darren Clarke] wins The Open at Royal St George’s. That sequence put a big focus on Irish golf and Portrush in particular.
“A key moment was Clarke’s Open Championship press conference the following morning when asked about The Open going to Portrush. He was sitting beside Peter Dawson and asked him the question, who in turn said the R&A hadn’t dismissed it. The notion gained momentum from there.
“Don’t forget people like Pádraig started this whole thing with three Majors in quick succession from 2007. He has done so much for Irish golf and has always sang the praises of Royal Portrush. Rory took on the mantle for the next generation and people listen to the top guys. They are all great ambassadors for the game and for Irish golf.
“The deal with the R&A executive is the 148th Open at Portrush is the first of three. Taking into account the approximate 10-year cycle plus demand for tickets, the earliest possible return would be something like 2026, but that’s crystal ball stuff for another day,” says McNeill.
There will be much pressure on the homegrown players to perform, but there are so many other factors to consider, not least Tiger Woods turning up as a Major champion rather than an also-ran.
There is an insatiable appetite for live sport in Ireland and Northern Ireland in particular. Perhaps fans in the North are deprived somewhat of live global sporting events, so when they do roll into town everyone wants to be part of it.
As for course and venue, McNeill believes Portrush is more than ready.
“The contractors are busy on site; the infrastructure has moved into the final stages. Cabling, fibre-optics, foundation work for TV compounds, media centres, corporate hospitality and tented villages are all in place. The unseen work. Considerable investment has been made, not just preparing the course but for the entire site for an Open Championship,” says McNeill.
This type of groundwork need only be done once. Royal Portrush has its big boy clothes on and can now say it’s a bona fide British Open venue. All the hard work behind the scenes has made sure of that.
FACTS & FIGURES
1,500 broadcast personnel
150 television cameras
1,000 international journalists/photographers/media
600 million global TV reach
22 miles of fibre-optic cabling
30,000 sq ft of tentage/exhibitors
Two miles of new pathways around course
3,000 permanent/temporary staff for the week
10,000 hospitality covers for the week
500 televisions on site
300 litter pickers
£80 million to the local economy (championship week only)
251,000 total spectators (approx)
44,750 spectators daily for four championship days (Thur-Sun 179,000)
14,000 grandstand seats on course
4,300 18th grandstand seats