Royal Portrush: get ready for a memorable Open Championship

If you’re one of the lucky 250,000 or so people who are planning on attending this year’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland next week, please allow me to make a few comments that you may find useful.  I’ve just returned from a visit there myself, in May, and in your humble service, I’ve checked it out for you in advance.  Really, it’s the least I could do.

First of all, boy oh boy, Royal Portrush is a fabulous golf course.

I would’ve loved to have told you this last year, same time, when I made a similar preliminary visit, but I played the course then in a blinding rainstorm and remember nothing of the experience except the underside of the brim of my rain cap.  This time around, I toured the layout with some fellow golf writers on a glorious sunshiny day and was amazed, delighted, awed and inspired by what I saw.  (To get a sense of what I saw, without 250,000 people there to cheer me on, take a visit to the club ‘s website http://www.royalportrushgolfclub.com/ and let the photos on the Home page scroll by themselves.)

The people of Northern Ireland are giddy with excitement for what they all agree will be the greatest sports spectacle in Irish history.

In fact, this year’s Open will be pretty much a tie as the greatest event in all of Ireland since the launch of the Titanic, which was built in Belfast.  That was in 1912 but didn’t turn out so well in the end.  The return of Saint Patrick to Ireland, in roughly 400AD was maybe even bigger, but there were only eight people living in Ireland then, and eyewitness accounts are sketchy.  If Belfast’s Rory McIlroy wins the Open, though, I worry about Saint Patrick’s staying power.

I’ll discuss the golf course a little more thoroughly below.  But what became uppermost in my mind, as we travelled from our delightful accommodations at the Causeway Hotel, about 7 miles east of the golf course (henceforth referred to as RPGC), was the question of “how on earth will all these people get there, and where on earth will all these people stay?”

Royal Portrush is situated on a spectacular piece of land bordering the Atlantic Ocean, on the northeast coast of the Emerald Isle.   But the town of Portrush is no metropolis.  Nor is the town of Bushmills, a few miles east, or the town of Coleraine, a few miles to the south, or Portstewart a seven iron to the west.   Major hotels are nowhere to be found, not so much as a Motel 6.  There are several small hotels like The Bushmills Inn, or the Causeway, but not enough to house a platoon, much less the Russian Army.  And aside from a couple of hundred small mobile homes that have been erected across the road from the Club, it’s not like every builder in the western hemisphere has descended on the area to build barracks to house people for roughly one week.

So, the point here is, if you didn’t book your accommodation for the Open within 24 hours of the announcement of the tournament a couple of years ago, your best bet may be throwing your sleeping bag down in the ruins of Dunluce Castle.  The Castle is a handsome skeleton of a building within walking distance of RPGC.  Keep in mind, however, that the Castle has been uninhabited since 1690 when its kitchen fell into the sea some one hundred feet below, and today has no roof to speak of.

Also keep in mind that, as magnificent as the countryside and villages of County Antrim are to visit, they are not made easily accessible by a web of superhighways.  RPGC is located on the side of a two-lane road, which doesn’t become a four-lane road until you get south of Coleraine, about 6 miles away.  This means that getting to the tournament is going to be a challenge, whether you’re you or, maybe even Peter Alliss.

Please don’t get me wrong, though.  I’m sure this Open will be every bit as successful and enjoyable as they all tend to be.  But getting there may be half the fun.

(And I must add, if you are going to be there in person, I must recommend the dining room at The Bushmills Inn.  They serve hearty fare that Henry VIII would have savoured.)

If, like me, however, you intend to enjoy the Open from the comfort of your own living room, remote control in hand, you’ll be in for a visual spectacle that you’ve probably never seen before.  That’s because the Open has not been played at Royal Portrush, or anywhere in Ireland, since the one and only previous time, in 1951.   That event was won by an Englishman named Max Faulkner, who’s no longer with us; and was so long ago that Max wore a natty pair of plus fours on the golf course for his victorious final round.  It would take too long for me to research whether a North American competed in that Open, or even attended it, but I highly doubt it.

Why it’s taken 68 years for the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews to award Ireland a second Open is anyone’s guess, because the R&A ain’t sayin’.  But all agree that it’s going to be a huge boost for Northern Ireland’s international profile, and tourism.  And it couldn’t happen to a nicer country.

The Royal Portrush Golf Club dates back to just before I was born, to 1888.  It has a long and very impressive history, as demonstrated by a fine gallery of black and white photographs in its clubhouse.  There are two courses on the property, but by far the superior layout is the Dunluce course which will host the tournament.  The Dunluce has seen many alterations and improvements over its lifetime, including a major re-do in the early 1930’s by the incomparable golf course architect Harry Colt.  (Most of you may know Colt as the designer of Hamilton Ancaster and Toronto Golf Club, two of our perennial Top Tens).

A smaller, but critically important redesign for the purposes of this year’s Open was done within the last two years, resulting in two stunning new holes designed by Martin Ebert.   These will be holes 7 and 8, which has enabled RPGC to make the old 15 and 16 the two new finishing holes, and believe me, they will be dramatic.  (Mind you, your humble correspondent played these four holes in one over par, if Ah do say so muhself.   So, they can be had.)

But players, spectators, TV cameramen, and TV viewers will all love RPGC because of its spectacular outlook on the ocean, and its magnificent gorse and grass-covered dunes, which frame tees, fairways, and greens, and in some places soar as much as 80 feet high.  TV pictures, however, won’t give viewers as much of a sense of the elevation changes on the course, particularly on the earlier holes which are furthest back from the beach, but give the most breath-taking views of the whole property.

The journalists I was with all had different views of how hard the world’s greatest golfers will find RPGC.  Of course, we’re all experts on these things (on everything, actually), and our opinions are not to be questioned, by anyone.  One writer, however, said he doubted that the winning score in July would be under par for 72 holes.  Too tough, he said.  Another pointed out that Max Faulkner was 3-under for the four rounds in ‘51, with wooden clubs and a smaller ball, which maybe suggests a little lower score this time around.  (And don’t forget, the course record of 61 is owned by one R. McIlroy, of nearby Holywood, northeast of Belfast. Mr. McIlroy will be in the field at RPGC next week, as chance would have it.)

In the end, we all agreed that everything will depend on the weather.  If it’s windy and warm and dry, the course will harden like a rock, and there are many holes where a hard green will result in a bounce to oblivion.  If it’s cold and wet, even Godzilla would have a tough time getting his ball out of the knee-high rough in some places, and some of those places aren’t far off the fairway, or more than a few paces from the green.  What’s more, it’s safe to believe that, in Northern Ireland, even in July, it could be windy, warm, dry, wet and cold all in the course of four days.

I can hardly wait to watch!

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