PORTRUSH, NORTHERN IRELAND | As eager fans streamed in record numbers into Royal Portrush last weekend, local officials considered the words of Padraig Harrington, an honorary life member of the host club. “Let’s put it this way; it’s more of a reality than people might think,” was how the Dubliner assessed the possibility of the British Open returning to the County Antrim links.
Harrington’s optimism provided a timely lift, coming as it did the week after the announcement of Royal Troon for the 2016 staging. Apart from his status as a two-time Open champion, it was viewed in the context of his regular contact with chief executive Peter Dawson as an official ambassador for the Royal and Ancient whose emblem he carries on his left sleeve. Harrington further suggested: “Staging the Irish Open here this week was an inspired decision which could lead to further Irish Opens and other things down the road.” At the mention of “other things,” there was a knowing raising of his eyebrows.
Having already endured the long wait since 1951 to get the British Open back on the Dunluce links, it could be that the eventual reward for Royal Portrush could be greater than their wildest imaginings. One recalls that when Royal St George’s had a 32-year gap between their Opens of 1949 and 1981, which was followed by a quick return there in 1985, to justify the R&A’s heavy financial outlay on infrastructure.
The cumulative, four-day attendance figure in excess of 100,000 for the Irish Open set a record for the European Tour, while demonstrating that the Northern Ireland public were prepared to enthusiastically support an important, international event. From an infrastructural standpoint, however, R&A observers would have noted that much work still has to be done if Portrush is to measure up to the highest level as a championship venue. In this context, there is absolutely no relevance to the 1951 staging which was won by the Englishman Max Faulkner.
Naturally, the distinction of becoming the first and still the only venue outside of mainland Britain to stage the Open Championship generated huge excitement in the holiday town and in neighbouring Portstewart, which became the second qualifying venue. Even in the hardship of those early, post-war years, golf was becoming a significant part of everyday life in the area.
Yet it should be emphasised that the scale of the championship was actually quite modest, certainly when compared with daily crowds of 45,000 which are now pretty much routine, while those at the Irish Open were as high as 27,000. Back in 1951, attendances were estimated at around 7,000 per day earlier in the week for a field of 85 professionals and 13 amateurs, and roughly 8,000 for the climax. That was when the final two rounds were played on Friday, July 7th, so that professionals could be back in their club jobs by the weekend.
For the avid fan, it was an absolute treat, with crowds permitted to walk most fairways which were not roped off. Restrictions were in place, however, to protect the precious dune structure, not unlike the arrangements deemed necessary at Ballybunion for the 2000 Murphy’s Irish Open. For instance, on certain holes stewards had instructions to ensure that galleries were restricted to one side of the fairway only, and spectators were totally excluded from the seventh and eighth.
With such modest crowds, the nature of these restrictions provide a fair pointer to the problems organisers would face in the event of the Open returning there.
One of the more obvious ways of dealing with large attendances these days is through grandstands spread throughout the links, each holding up to 2,000 spectators. In the event, the host club and the European Tour gained priceless experience from the staging of the Irish Open.
Meanwhile, one of the more memorable stories from 1951 concerned the way Faulkner seriously tempted fate by signing himself “Open Champion 1951,” with a final round still to play. Granted, he was a comfortable six strokes clear of his closest challengers after 54 holes, but the more superstitious practitioners in a notoriously superstitious game, were absolutely horrified that he should have been so presumptuous.
In the event, after the final putt had found the target and the winning prize of £300 was presented, we are told that Bernard Darwin of The Times brought him rapidly back to earth. “Faulkner,” barked the doyen of Britain’s golf-writing fraternity, “I understand you’ve won the Open. Sit there and I’ll write about you.” The thought of issuing such a command to modern-day practitioners like Tiger Woods, Ernie Els or Nick Faldo, is enough to make one’s blood run cold.
When the tents have gone and the Dunluce links is returned to its members, the cost to Royal Portrush of staging this year’s Irish Open is likely to be in the region of £200,000, largely the consequence of lost green-fees traffic. It is an investment, however, that the club have been more than happy to make. They know that if they happen to land the ultimate prize, lucrative streams of overseas visitors will be assured for generations to come.