We caught up with Gary McNeill to get his key insight into the 2019 Open Championship host course.
Royal Portrush – Key Insight Into The Open Course
Ranked 8th on Golf Monthly’s most recent Top 100 Courses listing, the Dunluce at Royal Portrush is one of the great links courses of the world. It’s a classic Harry Colt design with impressive recent improvements by Martin Ebert. From July 14-21, Portrush will play host to The Open for the first time since Max Faulkner triumphed there in 1951.
Ahead of the championship’s long-awaited return to Northern Ireland, Gary McNeill, head professional at Royal Portrush since 1999, gives us his thoughts on the course and on what players and spectators can expect during the week of the 148th Open Championship…
First and foremost, the setting at Portrush is absolutely spectacular. This is a beautiful golf course and a beautiful part of the world. The north Antrim coast is stunning. I think one of the things to note is there are quite a number of changes in elevation on the course, allowing both players and spectators to take in the striking views across the course, the sea and the coastline.
On top of that, you have a fantastic design; a Harry Colt classic that has no two holes running consecutively in the same direction. The holes are always twisting and moving and turning. The players will have to deal with wind coming from different directions all the time as they go from hole to hole.
The wind will generally come north-westerly and that’s probably as challenging as it can be. You start on the 1st with the wind coming a little left to right and helping ever so slightly, and then it’s very much left to right as you work your way out over the first five holes. But really there are no easy winds because of those multiple changes in direction.
So much will depend on what the conditions are like during the event. That’s something we can’t control, of course. We’d love it to be nice and dry and sunny but inevitably there will be a bit of wind. Many locals have been saying “It would be good if it were blowing 20 or 30 mph,” but I think more of a nice breeze would be better – something to keep the players thinking but that doesn’t cause too much trouble. The course is tough enough that it doesn’t need a strong wind for protection. It’s just under 7,400 yards and really is a proper test from the tips.
The course has been extended, too. We closed the old 17th and 18th and Martin Ebert built two fantastic new holes – now the 7th and 8th. They’re actually in the most scenic part of the course and are two crackers. The 7th is a brilliant par 5 at just under 600 yards (see panel), then the 8th is a very strong dogleg turning to the left, demanding a tee shot over a large valley out onto the fairway and a challenging second shot into a green perched on a plateau.
We’re very fortunate to have two new holes of such quality, adding to the original layout and done very much in the Colt style. Martin has done a wonderful job in designing them. There’s also some excellent new bunkering on many of the original holes, particularly off the tees. This will serve to tighten up a few drives and add to the challenge. Take the 2nd, for example, a par 5 of 575 yards – very much in reach for the modern-day professional. But a new bunker down from the tee tightens things up and unless you get a good drive away, it won’t be on in two.
Other holes to look out for include my favourite, the 4th – a long par 4 of 479 yards with OOB all down the right – and the 18th. From the championship tees, it’s 474 yards with a downhill tee shot towards the massive grandstand that will seat nearly 5,000 people.
There will be some excellent viewing for spectators, not only from the grandstands but also from a number of vantage points providing views of multiple holes. Go to the 13th, for example, and you’re also close by the 1st, 2nd, 12th, 14th, 17th and 18th holes – a fantastic spot.
Back to playing the links, it really is a drivers’ golf course. It’s not the kind of layout, at its level of yardage, where you can really get away with hitting a driving iron off the tees. You need to hit driver, and you need to drive it in the fairway so you can access the pins. The greens will be firm as The R&A is keen to test the players’ control, so playing from short grass is key.
We have a rough-management programme in place here and the team do tend to strip the rough back in the autumn each year and let it come through again, allowing the surface to dry out. We’ve been trying to promote the wispy, fescue-type rough. With it being quite a warm winter, though, the rough has probably had a bit of a head-start on where it would normally be. I would say by the time of the championship, the rough should be fairly juicy.
The R&A does a wonderful job of setting the course up and a great deal of thought goes into the fairway width, the semi-rough and so on. They haven’t narrowed the fairways deliberately – they are as we’d play them every day, as is the semi-rough. Portrush is known for its rough, though, and depending on the weather conditions, it will generally be somewhere the players will want to avoid!
Another feature of the course is a number of raised greens, many with false fronts. If the ball doesn’t quite get up or spins back, it can work its way back down 20 or 30 yards. This means the traditional links technique of landing the ball short and letting it run on will only work on a few holes at Portrush. Generally, the ball needs to be flown all the way. Again, in order to do that, and to hold the surfaces, the guys need to be hitting from the short grass.
It’s a course, then, that suits the ball-strikers and that, for me, means you look straight away to Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy – guys who hit it a long way but are straight as well. Obviously we’d love for Rory to have a good Open! Tommy Fleetwood, another great driver of the ball and someone who is due a Major, could be in with a shout.
Having said this, given the challenge of the green surrounds, Portrush also asks for a player to display a strong short game with plenty of imagination. A feature of Colt’s design are the run-offs, swales and gathering areas where the player has the choice to use the putter, opt for the chip-and-run or play the lofted shot. There are options and I think players enjoy that – they like to show off their skills and spectators enjoy that too.
Overall, there’s just so much variety out there, a bit of everything. You have doglegs left and right, you have holes going downhill and uphill and add in that scenery I talked about and it really is a great place for golf. I think it will deliver a truly memorable Open Championship.
Four potentially pivotal holes
5 White Rocks
A great risk and reward hole. The championship tee has been taken away and the players will drive from the members’ tee. It will likely measure between 350 and 360 yards. It’s a downhill tee shot with the green perched beside the beach. With OOB a few yards through the surface, there’s a chance of disaster.
7 Curran Point
Even though this par 5 is just under 600 yards, the longer hitters can reach in two if they get a good drive away. It’s a fantastic new par 5 with a high tee, a high green and a low fairway through a valley. The second shot is uphill, making it two very good blows if the players are to reach the green in two.
16 Calamity Corner
This famous hole has been stretched out to some 240 yards from the tips, playing slightly uphill over a deep chasm, It’s exposed and perched right on the corner. There will be players hitting 3-wood or even driver depending on the wind. It’s our answer to Amen Corner and just a wonderful par 3.
It’s potentially a risk and reward hole too. Even though it’s over 400 yards, it could actually be driven because of the steep run down to the green. The fairway drops off after 300 yards or so and then feeds down. The longer hitters, in the right wind, could get there. We could see eagles here.
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