Royal Portrush remains in the frame for future hosting of British Open
R&A’s chief executive Peter Dawson said successful hosting of the Irish Open “has not done any damage”
If the staging of the Irish Open there last year was seen as something of a trial run in the effort to hook an even bigger fish, then it would seem that Royal Portrush’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by the powers-that-be within the R&A. The fish, it would seem, is biting, if not yet landed.
Although urging caution in any expectations that the links on the north Antrim coast could return to the rota of courses for the British Open, the R&A’s chief executive Peter Dawson yesterday admitted the successful hosting of the Irish Open “has not done any damage,” as he put it, to the prospects of it playing host to the Major in the future.
Dawson, though, did claim it would be “premature” to put any timeline on when the magnificent Dunluce lay-out would again stage the championship.
Royal Portrush staged the Open in 1951 – when it was won by Max Faulkner – but has remained off the rota since then with the championship being confined to courses in Scotland and England in the meantime. However, the R&A sent a delegation to Portrush during last year’s Irish Open (when record crowds for a regular European Tour event attended) and they came away hugely impressed.
“It was a hugely successful event, and it was important we saw how that important event unfolded,” said Johnny Cole-Hamilton, the R&A’s executive director of championships who headed that visiting delegation. “A lot of positives came out of it.”
Cole-Hamilton added: “There is a huge jump between the Irish Open and the Open championship in terms of spectators numbers and infrastructure. This is a long process and we are just in the middle of that.”
Although Dawson said the R&A was “comfortable” with the existing rota, what he called the “enthusiasm” of the crowds at Portrush – “they turned out in very big numbers and were great supporters of golf,” he admitted – seems to have impacted which will give further encouragement to all at Royal Portrush that the course can be a future venue. The rota is currently full up to 2016 with the likelihood that it will return to an English venue in 2017, meaning that the earliest slot would be down the line in 2018.
The infrastructural issues in question, it is believed, relate to suitability for the massive grandstands used at the Open and also for the requirement of large corporate hospitality areas that go hand-in-hand with the oldest of golf’s Major championships. Still, the comments from both Dawson and Cole-Hamilton indicate a possible future staging for Portrush remains on the agenda.
There are currently nine courses on the British Open rota: St Andrews, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Royal Troon, Turnberry (in Scotland) and Royal St Georges, Royal Lytham and St Annes, Royal Liverpool and Royal Birkdale (in England).
This year’s British Open at Muirfield in July will be played over a lengthened course: it measured 7,034 yards when Ernie Els won there in 2002 and has been increased to 7,192 yards for this July’s staging of the championship. There are new tees at the second, fourth, ninth, 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th holes which have brought the increase in yardage. Some of the bunkering around the greens has also been altered, to increase the demands on shot-making on approach shots.
The biggest difference is on the ninth, where a land swap with neighbours the Renaissance Club has enabled the tee to be moved back almost 50 yards – extending the par-five to 554 yards – with a new bunker added on the right of the fairway and bunkers moved closer to the green.
“We are absolutely delighted to be back at Muirfield for the 16th time. It’s immensely popular with the players. Jack Nicklaus’ comment about ‘What you see is what you get’ at Muirfield was perhaps directed at other links courses with blind shots and where more luck is involved . .. . (It) is relatively flat and every hole seems to be going in a different direction, but we will be setting the golf course up to challenge these golfers,” said Dawson.
He added: “The rough has been cut down over the winter but will regenerate over the coming weeks. We will see the rough up and you are unlikely to win an Open Championship at Muirfield from the rough. The amount of rough is weather-dependent, but we will get plenty.”
Meanwhile, world number two Rory McIlroy – who celebrates his 24th birthday on Saturday – returns to action for the first time since the US Masters when he seeks to become the first multiple winner of the Wells Fargo championship. McIlroy won at Quail Hollow in 2010 and was beaten in a play-off by Rickie Fowler there last year. Pádraig Harrington, who missed the cut in Augusta, also returns to competitive play in Charlotte.
There are five Irish players in action in the Volvo China Open on the European Tour: Peter Lawrie, Michael Hoey, former champion Damien McGrane, Paul McGinley and Gareth Maybin are all competing in the event at Tianjin. Alan Dunbar, Simon Thornton and Gareth Shaw are the three Irishmen involved in this week’s Montecchia Open on the European Challenge Tour.