A prediction: The big winner of the Open Championship this week — other than, you know, the champion this week — will be Royal Portrush, a long-dormant beauty off the coast of the North Atlantic, nearly 70 years removed from its last major.
Seven decades is a long time. For many, a lifetime. That’s how long it’s been since the Open was played outside of either England or Scotland. It’s also how long it’s been since the Open was played at Portrush in Northern Ireland.
In 1951, an Englishman named Max Faulkner beat an Argentine named Antonio Cerda. That Open was not an iconic Open, but it was presumed by many to be the first of several Opens at Portrush. It was a course so great, it was impossible to ignore.
A return never transpired, though, for many reasons. And when it finally did these seven decades later, it was a much bigger deal than some may have guessed for this little country of a couple million people to get their Open back.
Here are five things to know about the 148th Open at Portrush.
1. Why the Open never went back: This one is both easy and also disturbing. The short — and probably correct — answer is that vicious in-fighting in Northern Ireland prevented large-scale operations by organizations that didn’t necessarily have to be there. Here’s Alan Shipnuck with a good rundown.
Royal Portrush should have become a fabled part of the rota, but beginning in the late 1960s all of Northern Ireland was engulfed in the civil war which came to be known euphemistically as the Troubles. The roots of the conflict dated back centuries, but the modern violence was fueled by a toxic mix of nationalism, religion and partisan politics. The Troubles simmered for three decades, pitting neighbor against neighbor and leading to more than 50,000 casualties and 3,500 deaths, often from indiscriminate bombings and deeply personal doorstep shootings. This was the Northern Ireland of McDowell’s youth.
So you can see why the R&A has been absent from this place.
2. Why it went back: Portrush is too good to ignore, and so are its people. We’ll get to what makes this course great here in a bit, but it goes without saying that when recent Open champs like Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy (as well as U.S. Open champ, Graeme McDowell, who grew up here) are lobbying on your behalf, chances are good that at some point somebody is going to start listening.
“There would be much work to do for an Open to go to Portrush,” Peter Dawson, then the R&A’s chief executive, said at [the 2012] Irish Open. Clarke was not taking that for an answer. Along with McDowell and McIlroy, they kept the quest in front of Dawson and others.
“I’d be speaking to him,” Clarke said, “and would just subtly slip it in all the time and tell him, ‘It’s good enough, it’s good enough.’ And he listened.”
There were so many others who built their own case, too. One of the most prominent forces in getting this event back to Northern Ireland has been Wilma Erskine, who serves as club secretary and manager at Portrush. She recently summed up the entire thing pretty well.
“When you go back, Royal Portrush was very much at the forefront of golf in the U.K. After the Amateur in 1960 and The Troubles came in the late ’60s, we were just completely forgotten about,” Erskine says. “Now it’s sort of like, ‘Hellooo, we’re here. Hey, this is Northern Ireland. We’ve been through a lot of pain in the past, but you know something? We’re up and going, and we can manage anything.’ “
Former R&A CEO Peter Dawson noted that both the passage of time and a successful 2012 Irish Open made all of this possible as well.
3. What sets it apart: Portrush is going to pop unlike some of its other links brethren, and players are already raving. It has numerous holes right on the water and loads of severe elevation change that doesn’t always come through at other tracks in the Open’s rota. Sometimes when the Open is shown on TV, the reverential tones with which it is discussed don’t make any sense. They will this week. Here’s a good breakdown of the architecture from Andy Johnson.
The Dunluce Links has wide fairways with great micro-contours, which will yield uneven lies. These uneven lies make for difficult approach shots to greens that have many repelling edges. Pair these factors with Northern Irish winds and a property of massive scale, and you have a venue that will likely allow the world’s best tacticians and iron players to rise to the top.
The closing stretch is going to be unbelievable, too. The 236-yard par-3 16th could see 3-woods or drivers hit depending on the wind. It’s a monster. The par-4 17th is drivable depending on which way the wind is running. And the par-4 18th has an internal out of bounds area. Bring me all the drama!
4. New holes: The 7th and 8th holes on this course were not there when the 2012 Irish Open was played on this course. The reason they were created is so that the Open could end on the old 16th where there’s more room for the traditional horseshoe grandstand setup. That’s a high price for a 130-year-old club to pay to host an Open, but the result has been amazing and somehow made a great course even better.
5. Native sons: I mentioned them earlier, but the trio of McIlroy, McDowell and Clarke — an Irish law firm name if there ever was one — was paramount to this event returning to Portrush. Their six combined majors carry real weight, and when combined with the grandeur of the course at Portrush, you begin to see why the R&A returned. As for whether any of them can do the unthinkable and win this Open? Only McIlroy has a real chance. He talked about that on Wednesday ahead of the festivities.
“It’s going to be one of those weeks where I have to enjoy the opportunity of getting to play in front of my hometown, not trying too hard, not putting myself under a lot of pressure,” McIlroy said. “Just to go out and enjoy it, because it might be the only time I get to do it.”
It might be. There’s no return date set, and even if there is, McIlroy may be out of his prime or not playing at all. Regardless, this week is already a massive win for both him and for his country. He gets the thrill of coming home to an Open — not many can say that — and the good people of Northern Ireland get the party they’ve waited a lifetime for..