On a recent visit to Northern Ireland we conducted a series of interviews for our BBC golf podcast, The Cut, ahead of the Open which is about to return to Royal Portrush. Our first stop was a swanky coffee shop in the centre of Belfast where I met up with a golf mad news reporter, Michael Cairns. “I know how to start this interview, I’ve got just the right story for you,” he said before we turned on the recorders.“Just say where we are and I will take it from there,” Michael added. So I did as instructed and he proceeded to explain what it was like to have been in the same street around a quarter of a century ago. He explained that the big plate glass windows we sat beside would have been lying in a thousand pieces in the street, indeed every window pane in this bustling part of the city centre would have been shattered. This was where one of the last big explosions of the so called “Troubles” occurred in Belfast. “And it was a biggie,” Michael recalled. Thankfully nowadays in these parts that term “a biggie” is more likely to be attached to the scale of event being staged in Northern Ireland. And there has been none bigger than the arrival of golf’s oldest and most revered championship.
The Open is going to be worth around £100million to the area as it ventures away from its traditional venues in Scotland and England for only the second time in its history. The only other occasion was also at Portrush back in 1951 when the Englishman Max Faulkner triumphed on the Ulster links. Given the ensuing troubles the notion of a return seemed an impossible dream for decades. Certainly it seemed the remotest of possibilities when the likes of Darren Clarke was growing up in Dungannon and Graeme McDowell was learning the game in his home town of Portrush. The same could be said for a young Rory McIlroy as he took his first golfing steps at the Holywood course on the outskirts of Belfast.
All three Ulstermen went on to become major champions, following in the wake of Dubliner Padraig Harrington. They contributed to a perfect storm because their wins coincided with the peace dividend from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Until 2012 questions to the R&A regarding the prospect of the Open returning to Portrush were summarily dismissed. Impracticalities over infrastructure and the political climate were cited as reasons to keep it off the rota. But then the European Tour’s Irish Open went to Portrush and was a huge success. The R&A were there incognito (they took off their blazers) and saw massive potential as sell out crowds witnessed Jamie Donaldson’s thrilling victory. Suddenly it all changed. The place was back on the map and golf’s bosses became receptive to the notion of the Open returning to Royal Portrush. The course underwent big changes. The comparatively prosaic seventeenth and eighteenth holes on the Dunluce links disappeared and that area now houses the tented village in Open week. Two new holes – the seventh and eighth – were carved out of the club’s Valley Course and the result is a spectacular layout with views to match and possibly exceed any other Open venue. The members have put up with disruption and course alterations for the best part of a decade. They have not been able to play off the turf since November last year, every round accompanied by a protective mat.
But it all seems worthwhile now the Open has arrived. It is the championship’s first all-ticket sell out. Visit Portrush and members and officials speak of their immaculate course in the way of proud parents showing off their newborn. They cannot wait to be centre of the sporting world, to see the great Tiger Woods striding to their first tee, to witness the Claret Jug being scrapped over their layout, one that has always been regarded as one of the UK’s finest links courses. And naturally they would love to see one of their own emerge victorious.
McIlroy has told me this is the most excited he has ever been ahead of a golf tournament. As I prepare to lead the BBC 5Live commentary team I feel similar sentiments. My mind jumps ahead – no, it runs riot – in a good way. Just imagine if McIlroy were to win his second Open title in his native Northern Ireland. It is asking an awful lot. He would need his best form in undoubtedly the biggest tournament of his life. But isn’t it great that we can contemplate such a prospect and, who knows, it might just happen if we dare to dream. If it did, the roars for Rors would be deafening, the volume turned to the max by a unique mixture of pride and passion. The noise might even prove sufficient to shatter nearby windows. No one would complain at that.