The Open Championship hasn’t graced the shores of Northern Ireland in nearly 70 years, not since Max Faulkner won by two strokes back in 1951. When you see the coastline, the ruins of Dunluce Castle in the distance, and the breathtaking green of the holes and greens this week, you’ll wonder what took so long for the tournament to return.
Royal Portrush’s role as an Open host is inextricably intertwined with Northern Ireland’s role in the United Kingdom. It’s a story that involves politics and bloodshed, world-famous golfers and delicate negotiations. And it’s the kind of story that could, in some small way, change the entire region for the better.
Ireland and Northern Ireland
First off, it’s important to understand — just so we’re all clear here in America — that Northern Ireland is a separate country from Ireland. Part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has its own political system and its own currency despite sharing an island with Ireland. Very, very broad strokes here — the largely Protestant populace of Northern Ireland spent most of the 20th century wanting to remain a part of the UK, while the primarily Catholic population of Ireland wanted to remain an independent entity, separate from Great Britain and the rest of Europe. This perpetual internal dispute erupted into what’s euphemistically termed “The Troubles,” and it’s characterized the entire arc of Northern Ireland for half a century.
The Troubles, broadly defined, constitutes a 30-year period between the 1960s and 1990s where Ireland and Northern Ireland were torn apart along both religious and political lines. It was an ugly kind of warfare, in the streets and in the restaurants and in the doorways of Northern Ireland, and more than 3,000 people died in the course of the conflict. The Good Friday Accords, signed in 1998, brought an end to the overt hostilities, though flashes of violence still exist to this day. It’s a complex, shifting political environment, but it’s one that appears to have stabilized as a younger, less battle-hardened generation comes into power.
(Note: this is a very condensed version of a highly charged low-level war. If you want to dig deeper into the painful history of Northern Ireland, I’d recommend “Making Sense of The Troubles” by David McKittrick, “Rebel Hearts” by Kevin Toolis, and “The Troubles” by Tim Pat Coogan, among many other fine works of journalism and fiction.)
Golf flowers in Northern Ireland
What does all this have to do with golf? This year’s Open Championship represents both a symbolic and literal opportunity for healing political wounds. Northern Ireland struggled throughout the Troubles, but has spent the last 20 years getting back on its feet, and bringing the UK’s most revered tournament to its shores will help both the country’s pride and its economy.
Northern Ireland, with a smaller population than Nebraska, has nonetheless managed to produce three major-winning golfers in Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy. All three have ties to the small town of Portrush — McDowell grew up there, Clarke now calls it home, and McIlroy set the course record at Royal Portrush with a 61 when he was just 16 years old.
Over the course of 13 months in 2010-11, the three posted a remarkable run of golf: McDowell won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, McIlroy won the next U.S. Open at Congressional, and Clark won the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s. That gave the Northern Irish trio the cachet they needed to begin petitioning the R&A, the Open’s sanctioning body, to add Royal Portrush to the Open rota.
Bringing the Open to Portrush
Royal Portrush took its first steps onto the big stage in 2012 when it hosted the Irish Open with only a year’s notice. That showed the skeptical types at the R&A that the site, while remote, could host a significant tournament.
"A huge amount of money would need to be spent, in my estimation, to make Royal Portrush a sensible choice,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said at the time. “That’s not a criticism of Royal Portrush—it’s a wonderful golf course—but the commercial aspects of it are quite onerous. It's going to take some time to come to a view, and the view may be no.”
As it turned out, the view was yes. Starting in 2015, the R&A devised a plan to rework Royal Portrush to give a sufficiently epic finish to an Open Championship, converting the existing 17th and 18th holes into a gathering area for fans and harvesting new 7th and 8th holes from Dunluce’s sister course. New roads, at a cost of millions of pounds, as well as new infrastructure went up all around the course. The R&A also orchestrated the logistics of getting everything from the United Kingdom — tents, grandstands, those famous yellow scoreboards — across water for the first time.
And it’s all worked. By one measure, this Open is literally the most popular in history: for the first time ever, there will be no tickets available to walkups. More than 100,000 tickets have been sold and distributed to golf fans hungry for the new experience.
How will Portrush treat the world’s best golfers? Take it from the guy who holds the course record: it’ll be tough.
“Portrush isn’t going to play firm and fast,” McIlroy said. “It’s a lush links course—even when Royal County Down is bone dry, Portrush will still have a lot of greenness to it.It’s spectacular, it’s unbelievable. It’s certainly a different golf course than the one I grew up playing—it’s bigger, it’s tougher.”
If this Open holds to form, by Sunday afternoon we’ll have a champion who battled wind, rain, and 155 other players to hoist the Claret Jug. What then?
Royal Portrush will get at least three Opens. The first available won’t be until 2023, but it’s likely Northern Ireland will have to wait a touch longer than that. Even so, everything is on track to put Royal Portrush in the permanent Open rota, a move that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.
“It’s huge for The Open to go back and it’s a great course,” two-time Open champion and Irishman Padraig Harrington said. “It’s great for the town of Portrush to have this festival. It’s great for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that we have moved on so much, we can host an event like this.”
Golf won’t heal Northern Ireland, and a few days along the coastline isn’t going to make anyone forget the half-century of strife that took place there. But it’s a chance for Northern Ireland, Ireland, and the rest of the United Kingdom to come together for a common cause and a common good, and that’s something worth celebrating.
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