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Irish rise or not, Open in no rush to Portrush

Posted on: July 13, 2011 8:02 am
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SANDWICH, England -- Despite the incredible ascent of Irish golf, wherein three different sons have donned major-championship crowns since mid-2007, it appears unlikely that the British Open will be headed to the Emerald Isle soon, if ever.

There's certainly no rush to Royal Portrush, the famed Northern Ireland links that was the site of the only Open to be played outside England or Scotland, back in 1951. Though the Royal & Ancient Golf Club hasn’t announced any host venues beyond 2014 and thus is positioned to quickly return to the island while the game is enjoying unparalleled popularity, the same old hurdles were trotted out as potential deal-breakers.

But at least the possibility wasn't entirely dismissed.

"Obviously there's much emotion about Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy's victories and why don't we go back to Northern Ireland and perhaps Portrush in particular?" R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said Wednesday. "I understand that.

"You can't, however, base where you hold the Open on where players come from.  I think that should be obvious to anyone.  Portrush is a terrific golf course, may well be strong enough for an Open, but as we all know, there are other issues of infrastructure, accommodation, roads, what would the commercial success or otherwise of the championship be that need consideration."

Then start considering, already.

McDowell, an Ulsterman with lengthy ties to Portrush, senses that an Open on Irish soil would be a huge hit, though a test tournament might be a good idea first. He thinks an Open might also solidify the country, which has again been wracked by bombings and strife over the past few days.

"It should be back on the Open rota," said McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, this week. "It would be nice to bring a little peace in the nation, would be a good start to things. There's a bit too much unrest there still.

"It's an interesting one. Could the golf course handle the surface area of the grandstands, routing to get 40,000 people round it, merchandise tents, everything that goes with the modern British Open? Peter Dawson told me that Portrush doesn't have the surface area, but I don't know if that's an excuse."

Indeed, many Open courses over the years have been kicked from the rotation over those very issues -- but later reinstated. Carnoustie, Hoylake and Turnberry were all reinstated after roads or other host-course shortcomings were addressed.

"[I am] not ruling it out by any stretch of the imagination, but it would have to meet all those criteria, and I don't think it's something that's going to be in any way imminent," Dawson said. "It's certainly something we'll have a look at again in view of the success of the golfers from that part of the world."

Then by all means, boys, get to work.

Yet, even given the rise of Irish fortunes thanks to Padraig Harrington, McDowell and McIlroy, with a population of under 2 million in Northern Ireland, Dawson has reservations as to whether ticket sales could sustain the tournament. Officials are expecting perhaps 185,000 fans this week, the number that attended when Royal St. George's last hosted the Open in 2003.

The issues faced at each of the three aforementioned Scottish or English links were somewhat unique, and by nature, the seaside courses usually are not rich in roads and hotel options. Portrush certainly faces some of those issues, too. But they might be solvable, like with Carnoustie and the rest.

"At Hoylake it was actually lack of land at the golf course to accommodate everything we would need to put on the golf course," Dawson said. "At Royal Portrush there is the second course there, so there's not a land issue on-site.  It's more road access, quantity of hotels, what would the level of corporate support be? What would the crowd size be, things of that nature."

True, it's an awful small pond from which to draw in terms of population. Portrush is located between 90 minutes and two hours from Belfast.

"Yeah, we're obviously not immune to what people are saying, and it clearly would have a lot of local support," Dawson said.

If you sense a however coming, you nailed it.

"Whether the quantum of local support, while being very intense, would be sufficient in quantity to make it a successful championship is something that would need to be judged," he said.

McDowell is a local hero at Portrush, where he has logged plenty of rounds over the years.

"Given the last two British major wins came from Northern Ireland, I think we're in quite a strong position," he said. "First and foremost, we could do with a European Tour event going up there [first] -- the Irish Open would be a great start and then look at British Opens after that.

"It's about a lot of things. I'd be a huge supporter of it, but I'm pretty biased. I love that part of the world. The golf course is excellent, fantastic. That would be a dream, an achievable dream."

The 1951 Open at Portrush was won by England's Max Faulkner. For those who remain fuzzy on the particulars of governance in those parts, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and is thus considered "British." The Republic of Ireland is not.

As for its worthiness, Royal Portrush was ranked No. 5 by Golf Digest in a list of the best links tracks in Great Britain and Ireland.

McDowell said he'd be willing to make a big personal sacrifice to bring the Open to Ulster, too.

"I would have to give up my parking spot," he laughed. "But it would be worth it."

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