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Local Heroes will not get an Open

Dermot Gilleece on why Royal Portrush is unlikely to stage the Open

Posted Jan 09, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

darren clarke new

Reaction in certain quarters to the announcement of this year’s Irish Open going to Royal Portrush, suggests it is only a matter of time before the County Antrim links plays host to the Open Championship.  In fact Darren Clarke’s manager, Chubby Chandler, has predicted it will happen before the end of this decade.

All of this is based on the fact that Portrush staged the Open back in 1951, when Britain’s Max Faulkner captured the title, along with the assumption that it will meet the various infrastructural needs of the Royal and Ancient for their flagship event.  There is also the assumption that the R and A are anxious to increase the number of venues on the Open rota.

Regarding the last of these points, it is certainly the case that they were on the lookout for Open venues about 20 years ago.  That was when the rota was reduced to seven, i.e. St Andrews, Muirfield, Royal Troon and Turnberry in Scotland, and Royal Lytham, Royal Birkdale and Royal St George’s in England.

There was even a suggestion that the R and A would look outside the UK by considering Portmarnock, which played host to the British Amateur Championship in 1949 and the Walker Cup in 1991.  In fact the North Dublin links is set to stage another R and A event, the St Andrews Trophy, this summer.

It should be noted that those venue concerns occurred at a time when the Royal Liverpool Club at Hoylake and Carnoustie had dropped off the rota.  Hoylake, where the course was in need of upgrading, had not staged the Open since Roberto de Vicenzo’s victory in 1967, while lack of hotel bedrooms had rendered Carnoustie unsuitable during the years following Tom Watson’s victory there in 1975.

So it was that R and A secretary, Michael Bonallack, floated the notion of changes to the rota with a view to offering more options to his championship committee.  Gradually, however, a perceived problem began to resolve itself.  The first thing that happened was a decision to stage the Open over the Old Course at St Andrews every five years, starting in 1990.  Then, after a brief trial period as host to the Scottish Open, Carnoustie returned to the rota for the 1999 Open, with greatly enhanced hotel accommodation.

Seven years later, after a lapse of 39 years, Hoylake also returned to the Open fold.  And while some of us might have had reservations regarding the limited space around the links, it proved to be a memorable staging, not least for the victory of Tiger Woods who was completing a double after his victory at St Andrews the previous year.

So we now had nine courses on the rota - five in Scotland and four in England.  And with the Open at St Andrews every five years, it meant that the organisers could choose from eight venues for every group of four Opens in between.  As a consequence, the Open will be returning to Lytham this year for the first time since 2001.

With a truly outstanding links, universally admired as a wonderful, second-shot test, Portrush may feel they are set fair as an Open venue.  But the infrastructural demands these days are light years removed from the situation which applied there in 1951.  We remember the huge investment the R and A made at Royal St George’s so as to restore it to the Open rota in 1981 and how they returned there in 1985 and 1993 with a view to justifying that expense.

A similar situation would confront them at Portrush at a time when they will feel under no real pressure to make such a move.  And the R and A will be acutely aware of the limitations of the County Antrim venue from the experience of staging the Senior British Open there for five, successive years from 1995 to 1999.

So, it seems to me that much as the locals will want the ultimate event as a way of honouring the remarkable achievements of Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, they will have to make do with the Irish Open.  And that, for the foreseeable future.

- Dermot Gilleece

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