The famed Northern Irish links hosts golf's oldest Major for the first time since 1951 this month
How Royal Portrush Got The Open Championship Back
Mike Harris travels to the Antrim Coast and finds a club, and town, bubbling with excitement
In 2006, a small sub-committee of members met for the first time at Royal Portrush. The aim of the group was clear: to get the club back on the global golfing map.
The Dunluce Links has always been regarded as one of Ireland’s finest layouts, attracting golf course connoisseurs from far and wide.
But, to maintain and indeed grow its reputation, the members knew they needed the significant boost that hosting a high-profile tournament can bring.
The ultimate goal was to have The Open return, though even the most enthusiastic members of the committee acknowledged this was somewhat of a pipe dream.
However, momentum for this bold idea came from a rather unexpected and timely source – the success of golfers from Northern Ireland in Major Championships.
Graeme McDowell started the process by winning the US Open in 2010, a year later Rory McIlroy ensured the trophy retuned to Northern Ireland and a month later Darren Clarke lifted the Claret Jug at Royal St George’s.
That hat-trick of wins really put golf in Northern Ireland in the spotlight.
All three players regularly referenced Royal Portrush – McDowell and Clarke are both members and Rory set a course record of 61 in 2005 – and spoke of the dream for their country to host The Open again.
More positive strides were made when the club hosted the Irish Open in 2012, with more than 130,000 fans attending.
This demonstrated that not only could the course host a significant tournament, but also that there was huge appetite among Irish golf fans to attend big golf events.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes the club was working hand in hand with The R&A and the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure the infrastructure that was required to host one of the world’s biggest sporting events would be built.
In 2013, The R&A announced that Royal Portrush was officially back on the rota and two years later, July 18, 2019 was confirmed as the date that The Open would return.
One of the crucial factors in getting the decision over the line was the club agreeing to work with architect Martin Ebert to create two new holes deep in the dunes.
This would allow the former 17th and 18th holes that were on flat land close to the clubhouse to be used for the ever-increasing tented village that now accompanies The Open Championship.
The new holes – the 7th and 8th – are absolutely stunning creations that fit seamlessly into the routing.
Their introduction at the expense of the old 17th and 18th – regarded as two of the weaker holes on the course (both visually and as golfing tests) – has taken the Dunluce Links to another level.
With this sensational layout now in place, the club are determined that the course should look as good as possible when the eyes of the golfing world will be upon it.
So, under the guidance of Alistair Beggs, who is consultant agronomist to both the club and The R&A, the decision has been made that fairway mats will be in use for all play from 1st November 2018 until after The Open Championship.
“It’s quite a lot to ask of the members but everyone at the club is so proud that The Open is coming back – it’s a sacrifice they’re prepared to make,” says secretary Wilma Erskine, who has been at the club for 35 years and will retire after The Open.
This pride and excitement is evident not only in and around the club but also in the town of Portrush itself.
Everywhere myself and photographer Kevin Murray went on our visit (be sure to take in the Harbour Bar if you’re ever in town), all the chat was about The Open.
It is perhaps little surprise that all the championship days sold out almost immediately, such is the demand to be part of what could be one of the greatest Opens of the modern era.
I had only been to Royal Portrush once before, back in 2004, so it was with great anticipation that I returned at the end of September.
As Kevin’s images show it was a stormy day when we visited, but despite the challenging conditions, the round was immensely enjoyable and the course even better than I had remembered it.
The Dunluce is a very natural links that sits in harmony with its environment.
The club does a lot of work to encourage a diverse ecosystem where flora and fauna flourish and, as we found, the course can be wild, especially on the more exposed holes.
A few days with the wind up will certainly add to the experience and keep the players on their mettle.
I’ve picked out what I think are six standout holes, but the truth is there isn’t a weak hole on the course.
The test is a searching one from first hole to last and will provide a fitting stage for the world’s best players to battle for the Claret Jug.
4th – Fred Daly’s
455yds medal / 479yds championship
The yardage book describes this hole as “a real par 4 ½”. I’d say 4 ¾ is more accurate.
It’s a long hole from both the medal and championship tees, with OOB running hard up the entire right-hand side of the fairway.
The natural inclination is to play safe to the left, but there are two sizeable bunkers at driving distance on that side.
The second trap, which Ebert added in 2017, requires a 280-yard carry from the tips.
The bunkerless green is guarded by two dunes and sits at an angle to the fairway.
Walking off this green and up to the 5th rewards you with an absolutely stunning vista…
5th – White Rocks
379yds medal / 382yds championship
Standing on this tee, with a huge expanse of rollercoaster duneland extending in front of you and the Atlantic beyond, makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
The hole itself is a superb downhill dogleg right that plays to a green which clings to the edge of the cliffs above White Rocks beach.
Downwind this could be driveable by the big hitters, but new fairway bunkers have been added left and right that will catch long but offline drives.
Up at the green the surface has been mown out towards the cliff edge and it’s very possible for approach shots to run through and OOB.
7th – Curran Point
552yds medal / 590yds championship
The first of Martin Ebert’s two new creations is an absolutely stunning long par 5 that plays on land taken from the club’s second course, The Valley.
The hole plays from an elevated tee and is flanked to the right by a giant dune.
The fairway moves right then left and right again before rising as it approaches a green that features rolling run-off areas.
This is a truly outstanding golf hole.
10th – Himalayas
363yds medal / 475yds championship
The first hole of the back nine is a strong dogleg right that requires the golfer to take a bold line with the tee shot to find a blind landing area.
Anything pulled left will end up in broken ground with a very awkward lie.
The long, narrow green has been recontoured to make it more in keeping with the others on the course and this now gives the option of some testing pin positions.
13th – Feather Bed
165yds medal / 191yds championship
While the fearsome 16th hole, Calamity Corner, is the most famous par 3 at Portrush, the 13th is arguably a better short hole.
It’s certainly more playable and the challenge more varied.
From an elevated tee, players must judge the downhill drop and gauge the wind direction in order to avoid the five bunkers that ring the hole.
The green slopes to the back, meaning a front pin position will be especially hard.
18th – Babington’s
426yds medal / 473yds championship
A new back tee will force more players into hitting driver at this formidable closing hole.
It’s another tee shot where the braver the line, the bigger the reward.
The courageous tee shot will be fired towards the OOB that runs parallel to the left edge of the fairway, and from there it’s a much better line of play to a long, slightly raised green.
Come Open week this green will be a fantastic stage for the action to unfold upon.
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