HELPED by a fair bit of nudging from himself, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, the day Darren Clarke dreamed about yet feared might never happen due to decades of violence in Northern Ireland is to become a reality.
On 18 July, 2019, the 148th Open Championship will get underway at Royal Portrush, Clarke’s home club on the Antrim coast, the event returning there for the first time since 1951, when Englishman Max Faulkner lifted the Claret Jug.
It will be only the second occasion in the tournament’s 159-year history that it is staged outside Scotland or England, the R&A’s decision to restore the Dunluce Links to its rota for the game’s oldest major coming on the back of a successful staging of the Irish Open there in 2012, when 112,000 spectators turned out over four unpleasant days weather-wise.
With the news coming hot on the heels of Northern Ireland’s football team qualifying for its first major football tournament in 30 years coupled with Michael Conlan becoming the country’s first world senior amateur boxing champion, these are exciting times for sport in the Province, and Clarke, the 2011 winner, conceded the prospect of him playing in an Open Championship on home soil was once unthinkable due to past troubles in the region.
“I played a lot of my golf here, I lived here and was a proud member here, but to think would we ever get through the dark times Northern Ireland has had, to get to this stage where we have the biggest and best tournament in the world, I’d have to have been very foolish to say yes,” declared Europe’s Ryder Cup captain as he joined Martin Slumbers, the new R&A chief executive, to announce that Royal Portrush had been added to the rota after Royal Troon (2016), Royal Birkdale (2017) and Carnoustie (2018). “Nobody could foresee that coming through in the bad old days, but to see how far we have all come, how far our politicians have moved this part of the country on, it’s been brilliant,” he added.
While violence during the marching season, the height of which is the traditional “Twelfth of July” commemorations, still has a habit of breaking out, any fears the R&A may have had about taking its flagship event back to Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years have been quelled since Clarke, McIlroy and McDowell, all proud Ulstermen and all using their weight as major winners, began turning the screw on the recently-retired chief executive, Peter Dawson.
“I think it might have been right after the 2012 Irish Open (when it was staged in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1953),” said Clarke in reply to being asked when his first conversation with Dawson about The Open returning to Royal Portrush had taken place. “That was the most popular golf tournament on the European Tour for a long time by a long way and also the only one in the history of the European Tour that’s ever been sold out. With it being so successful – and I think George O’Grady (the European Tour’s chief executive at the time) should get the credit for that as it was a courageous move and was certainly the catalyst to why we are all here today – I thought it was worth a bit of a nudge, as did the rest of the guys.”
In attendance along with deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s acting First Minister, Arlene Foster, hailed Clarke as a “real ambassador” for Royal Portrush and said he had put the course on the “R&A agenda” through his victory in the Claret Jug joust four years ago. It, of course, came a year after McDowell had been crowned as US Open champion, with McIlroy since having done more than anyone else to put Northern Ireland golf on the map by claiming four majors, including an Open Championship success last year.
According to Clarke, however, it was Padraig Harrington, a Dubliner, who sparked the impetus that has paved the way for Ireland to be savouring the prospect of staging its biggest golf event since the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club. “It wasn’t started by me, Graeme or Rory, it was Padraig winning three majors in a very short period of time and we all followed him, so Padraig deserves an awful lot of credit,” he said. Adding their voices to a chorus of joyous reaction to the announcement, McIlroy, who holds the Royal Portrush course record of 61, said it will be a “dream come true to play an Open Championship at home” while McDowell, whose brother, Gary, is on the greenkeeping staff here, used the same phrase to sum up what it would mean to him to win the event in his backyard.
Even Clarke, who could probably play the course in his sleep, will have to acquaint himself with a new test, however. As well as the two new holes – the current 17th and 18th on the Dunluce are being replaced by two being constructed on the neighbouring Valley layout – the course has been lengthened by almost 200 yards to 7,337, with the number of bunkers increased by three to 62, though that is still the lowest of any of the 10 courses on the Open rota.
Clarke said he’d initially been sceptical of some of the changes, but insisted that had purely been down to him being “such a fan” of the Harry Colt-designed course. He can now see it is a case of modernising the layout to deliver a test that will require the use of “both your driver and your brains” while, at the same time, freeing up space that is required for the infrastructure of an Open Championship.
Deep in the bowels of the Royal Portrush clubhouse, Clarke’s locker number is 141, which marks the event he won in Kent. “I would also love to have locker 148,” he said, with a smile.