Darren Clarke grew up thinking he'd never see The Open return to Royal Portrush. Mark Townsend sat down with the Northern Irishman
For an often-stuttering sport things can occasionally move very quickly. We spoke to the R&A’s Mike Tate in 2011 about the possibility of The Open returning to Northern Ireland. “I don’t think there is anything seriously on any agenda,” he told us. “From time to time we get interested parties coming forward but there is nothing happening there.”
At every pre-championship press conference Peter Dawson would be asked the same question and every year there seemed more questions in the answers.
This is from Dawson in 2012, and three weeks after the Irish Open was held at Royal Portrush with R&A representatives present: “It’s a favourite of mine. Wonderful course, wonderful challenge. And it’s great to see how successful the Irish Open was and particularly the enthusiasm from the spectators in that part of the world.
“If you were at the Irish Open and compare it with what we’re doing here, we’re talking 20,000 grandstand seats, and here I doubt they had 2,000 at the Irish Open. You’re talking about a tented village here I would estimate 10 or more times the size it was at the Irish Open. And the crowd size at the Irish Open, whilst it was very good, was only as good as perhaps the lowest crowd we expect at an Open venue like Turnberry.
“Where would you have the 72nd hole? Where would you put the big grandstand complex? The practice ground would need a lot of work at Portrush in my own estimation. And as I say, we don’t have a finishing hole that would have the grandstands around it. There would be much work to do for an Open to go to Portrush. There is a great deal and a huge amount of money would need to be spent, in my estimation, to make Royal Portrush a sensible choice.”
Twelve months later Dawson explained that they were “cracking on with the work” but things didn’t seem to have moved on too far.
But come June 2014 things has moved on at pace with the news that the Dunluce Links at Portrush would again stage the game’s oldest major and, 16 months later, we had a date – 2019.
For the first time since 1951 The Open would be returning to Northern Ireland, there would be two new holes, £70 million to be pumped into the local economy and nobody had a bigger smile on their face than Darren Clarke.
The 2011 champion was particularly vocal in singing Portrush’s praises having lived in the area and played there “thousands of times”. Clarke might have played all around the world but Portrush is where his heart is.
Everyone talks about Rory’s 61 at Portrush, but what’s your best round there?
I’ve played so many rounds there I actually don’t know. I will have literally played thousands of rounds there, I’ve played there since I was 12.
I know I’ve never shot 61, maybe a 63 is my best?
Do you have any stand-out memories from your amateur days?
They have a big amateur tournament called the North of Ireland there every year and I managed to win that once in 1990. It was huge, I played Paul McGinley in the final and there were thousands there. It’s a hugely respected amateur tournament at home and even more so as it’s played at Royal Portrush.
Garth McGimpsey, who was the Walker Cup captain, is a member at Portrush and he won it the next three years. I played with him when I started playing for Ireland and he was a fantastic golfer and still is to this day.
Can you give us a bit of flavour of Portrush the town?
It’s a wonderful little town and is a holiday area for people in the summer and is very dependent on tourist traffic.
There is an area with all the bars and pubs and they are all owned by George and Jane McAlpin and their sons run them all, they own everything down in the harbour. The food is great and good value, it’s a big part of The Open to have a buzzing town and that’s what they’ll have.
The best pint can be found at the Harbour Bar.
And the course?
The club is steeped in tradition. It’s always been reasonably busy but it’s getting busier and busier now. It’s such a fair, wonderful test and it gives you choices and opportunities. It doesn’t have the most undulating fairways for links golf so if you hit a good shot it invariably stays on the fairway. But if you hit a poor drive you can forget about it.
Portrush will be proper, they’ll love it.
What do you see as the hardest tee shot?
It depends what they do. The 1st will have out of bounds right, I’m not sure about the left side yet as there will be hospitality units coming up through that slither of land.
With the wind into and off the right or left there will be a few guys who will have to reload.
What do you make of the changes?
Martin Ebert has come in and done a bit of a redesign while still keeping the ethos of what Harry Colt did originally which is such a skill. He’s just brought it up to speed a little bit in modern terms.
It is a wonderful Colt course as you can run the ball in at plenty of holes. There aren’t too many elevated greens, some appear so but they’re not. It’s a workable course and you can play it in all sorts bad of weather. You can hit it six foot off the ground all day long if you’re able to.
The last two holes, which have now been replaced, weren’t the strongest and they were different style wise, they were fit-in holes as the old clubhouse used to be at the top of the hill.
Now the 18th is a bit like the last at Birkdale, miss it left and you’re left with a brutal up and down as the rough will be up. Leak it right off the tee and you have a completely blind second.
I think the R&A will take a look at it after The Open and see what worked and what didn’t and maybe Martin will go back in.
Do you think the players will try and drive the 5th?
They have put in two new bunkers and it’s had a big redesign. I know the rough down the right-hand side is going to be like hay, it will be brutal.
If the flag is on the back level and downwind and you don’t hit your pitch that well you could easily go out of bounds which is two paces over the back of the green.
Which changes is Clarke not a fan of? And who would make his dream Portrush fourball? He explains all on the next page…