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Northern Ireland – a special place to play golf

BY MARK THOMAS

TO THOSE in the know, the attractions of golf on the majestic links of Northern Ireland are something of a secret delight.

But the cat will be well and truly let out of the bag this July, when hundreds of millions of fans around the world tune in to watch the world’s greatest golfers battle it out at Royal Portrush in County Antrim.

Royal Portrush is the only venue outside England and Scotland ever to have staged The Open Golf Championship – a distinction it won in 1951.  This classic golf links has had to wait 68 years for The Open to return, but now at last the wait is almost over.

And it is safe to predict that the 148th staging of The Open will make a significantly bigger global impact than did the 80th.

Max Faulkner’s 1951 triumph was shared with the world via a black and white Movietone newsreel for cinema audiences.  This year’s event will be televised from dawn to dusk in intense detail, exposing to audiences in living colour the ruggedly beautiful north coast of Northern Ireland in all its dramatic glory.

It is being billed as the biggest single sporting event Northern Ireland has ever staged, and the excitement it has generated has led to an unprecedented stampede for tickets, driven largely by the golf-crazy Irish, which saw all four days of the championships sell out months in advance.

R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers said:  “This July in excess of 190,000 people from around the world will experience first hand the thrill of one of the world’s greatest sporting events, the 148th Open. Combined with an expected worldwide TV reach of 600 million people, they will see the golf, Northern Ireland’s glorious coastline, and hear stories of its people.

“We have seen unprecedented demand for tickets which has led for the very first time to all four championship days being sold out.  That this has happened so far in advance is testament to the excitement about The Open that is so obvious every time I come here.”

That excitement is also expected to lead to a huge boost in golf tourism, with fans wanting to test their own skills on the fairways of Royal Portrush and other stunning links courses along Northern Ireland’s iconic Causeway Coastal Route, like neighbouring Castlerock and Portstewart, which hosted the 2017 Irish Open.

Golf tourism is already worth an annual £39.9m to the Northern Ireland economy, attracting more than 123,000 visitors a year, and that figure is targeted to rise to £50m by 2020 on the back of Open fever, with visitors coming mainly from North America, Great Britain, the Irish Republic and Europe.

Royal Portrush was founded in 1888.  Two new holes have been created by golf architect Martin Ebert – a new sixth and seventh to replace its old 17th and 18th – in preparation for this year’s Championship, and the overall length of the course has been increased by almost 200 yards to 7337.

Perhaps its two most dramatic holes are White Rock and Calamity, which will be the 16th instead of the 14th in the new layout. Calamity requires total precision to carry an enormous ravine without leaving yourself 50 feet below the hole, and could make and break many a round this summer.

Only two golfers managed to break 70 during the entire 1951 Open, and one of them, the legendary commentator Peter Alliss, was in Belfast as guest of honour at a launch event for this year’s Open back in January. 

Said Alliss: “Without doubt you have some of the most dramatic golf courses around your coastline, as good as anywhere in the world. There is something about the ambience of golf in Ireland that makes it very special.” 

He said the odds on a home victory for Rory McIlroy would be short, adding: “I wish him well because he is one of the most polished golfers I’ve seen, a beautifully balanced golfer.  I think he and his family have handled things magnificently well, and I wish him success.

“If he holds the Claret Jug this July it will be great for the game, great for Northern Ireland and great for him.”

McIlroy, who lifted the Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool in 2014, enthused: “Royal Portrush is one of my favourite golf courses in the world.  I think it will be a fantastic Open venue.

“For me, Northern Ireland really is made for golf. I’d urge anyone who hasn’t played one one of our many superb courses to give it a go. It really is one special place to play the game.”