Once is not enough

The success of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell have renewed calls for the Open Championship to return to Northern Ireland, where it was held back in 1951. The biggest concerns seem to be about infrastructure.


Graeme McDowell's home club of Royal Portrush is a popular choice to host the Open among Northern Ireland golf fans. (Getty Images)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (PA Sport) -- Northern Ireland's success in golf has renewed calls for the Open Championship to return to its shores. The tournament has been hosted in the region just once, at Royal Portrush on the north coast in 1951.

While local golf fans have long hankered for the United Kingdom's major championship to come back to the links, the feats of successive U.S. Open winners Rory McIlroy and Portrush's own Graeme McDowell have given added impetus to the campaign.

Establishing a berth on the rota of courses that host the event is a rare honor, with only 14 having staged it in 139 previous outings. But as the first nation other than the United States to retain the U.S. Open, Northern Ireland's politicians and tourism bosses believe the region should once again host the British national championship.

With Royal Portrush rated as one of the finest in the British Isles, there is no doubting the club's credentials to challenge the world's top players.

The issue of bringing back the Open has instead focused on logistics. But supporters insist that concerns about infrastructure in the Portrush area can be overcome.

The first opening in the tournament rota is in 2016.

Club officials wish to host the event and, in the short term, are working with the Stormont administration in an effort to bid for the Irish Open.

Royal Portrush Secretary-Manager Wilma Erskine said that although the club is geared to tournaments, it would still need significant financial support from the government in order to host a top ranking event.

"We would be very happy to a host a major tournament,” she said. “We have recently hosted the British Ladies Amateur Open championships and the R&A (Royal and Ancient) are hosting the Senior Open Amateur Championship here, so we are very much focused on tournaments. But with most things, funding is vital and we are working with the Government on that issue."

Robert Cully, director of business development at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, spoke of the worth of golf tourism.

"Successful golf events have significant potential in attracting visitors to Northern Ireland and in bringing financial benefits to the local economy,” he said. "Golf tourism currently contributes approximately ($20 to $25 million) to the economy here. Following Rory's major win at the weekend and Graeme's success at the U.S. Open last year, the positive PR that is generated for Northern Ireland on a global stage is creating unprecedented interest in our golf offering.

"The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has supported many golf events in the past, including the Senior British Open and Irish Ladies Open, and we are currently working with Galgorm Castle (in Ballymena) to host the PGA EuroPro event for the second successive year,” he added. "We will continue to focus on attracting high-quality golf events here, to improve our golf offering to tourists and to ensure we can capitalise on the current international focus on Northern Ireland golf."

Local Assembly member David McClarty said the pros of a British Open return to Royal Portrush far outweighed the cons.

"People use the argument that there's not enough accommodation in the area, well that's nonsense,” he explained. “Look at St. Andrews. It's a relatively small place. Golf fans have proved they are prepared to travel miles to see the Open, and in Northern Ireland you are never more than two hours from anywhere, so there is plenty of accommodation throughout the country."

The independent MLA said the success of McIlroy and McDowell could give a huge boost to tourism.

"I think there a huge opportunity here for us. In successive years we have had two golfers win the U.S. Open,” he added. “People in America and elsewhere are now saying: What's so special about Northern Ireland that it can produce two champions from such a small place? Let's go and explore what's going on there.

"Golfing breaks are big business and this is a wonderful opportunity for us to exploit."

East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell, who mentioned McIlroy's victory in Westminster on Monday, said the success could see increased golf tourism in the region.

"With the U.S. Open trophy having now found a semi-permanent home in Northern Ireland, some of our best golf courses will rightly have the spotlight upon them for visitors to see," he said.

A spokesman for the Royal and Ancient Club, which runs the Open, said: "We consider numerous criteria in selecting an Open Championship venue, including transport network, accommodation, land for tented village, grandstands and other Championship infrastructure as well as commercial factors.

"This list is not exhaustive, but indicative of the considerations made by the R&A in selecting an Open venue,” he added. "With these factors in mind there are currently no plans to add to the venues currently used."

Courses on the current rota are St. Andrews, Muirfield, Turnberry, Troon and Carnoustie in Scotland and Royal Birkdale, Royal Liverpool, Royal Lytham and Royal St. George’s in England.