How the R&A found a way to bring the Open Championship back to Northern Ireland 68 years after its first (and last) visit
By Mike Stachura
To come at Royal Portrush from the Antrim Coast Road in Northern Ireland is to find a kind of golf brigadoon meets “Game of Thrones.” The ruins of Dunluce Castle— which has been used as GoT’s Castle Greyjoy—date to the 1500s and stare along the cliffs of The Whiterocks down to a seaside village that was a resort town before there were cars to get to it. Between that headland and the castle lie dunes that roll like a sea with bad intentions. So natural a setting for golf is this ground that they’ve been playing the game here since the 1880s. The great old course takes its name from Dunluce, and like the castle, its holes now seem to breathe with renewed vigor, menacing and majestic, beast and beauty, terror and treat. Like the castle, it seems as if the course nearly falls into the sea. The castle didn’t survive. The links, thankfully, did.
Royal Portrush steps forward to host the 148th Open Championship July 18–21, a rightful place for a venue that today consistently ranks as one of the world’s best.
Unbelievably, there was a time when Royal Portrush, while well regarded for close to a century, was lost from view. Located in a land torn by the three decades of violence that came to be known as The Troubles, Royal Portrush was never so close to the tensions between Catholics and Protestants, but never all that far. Though The Troubles were largely why Northern Ireland was not in the discussion for an Open Championship for a lifetime, the only course that ever was in that discussion is Portrush’s mighty Dunluce Links. It last hosted the Open in 1951, the only time before or since that the Open wasn’t played in Scotland or England. Neither possible nor practical for what amounts to generations, Royal Portrush is now poised to reassert its qualifications while Northern Ireland writ large wants to show the world its poetry, not its peril.
There is a reason the run-up to the Open at Portrush has included a BAFTA-worthy short film set to an original poem to promote the region to tourists. Titled “We’ve Come a Long Way,” it includes the stanza, There’s nowhere else quite like it,/the grace of the landscape refreshes,/the warmth of the people renews …
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Royal Portrush gets it. As 33 years passed between hosting any notable international golf events (the 1960 Amateur and the 1993 Amateur), Portrush lingered somewhat in obscurity, not even finding itself in some of the rankings of the world’s best courses during the 1980s. Back then, there was scarcely an American foursome on the tee sheets when green fees were $12. Now rates are more than 20 times that, and requests for reservations are met not with “What month?” but “What year?”
The venue has been transformed in the most dramatic and yet straightforward ways. Indeed, name another course on earth that could choose to lop off its 17th and 18th holes and still get better. Yet that’s precisely what Royal Portrush has done to get the R&A to bring the Open back. What might have been golf-course architecture upheaval instead looks like the kinds of adaptations that might have been in the mind of Harry Colt, the architect responsible for the course’s first redesign in the 1930s. (Old Tom Morris generally gets the original credit, although much of his original routing was on slightly different property.)
Under the guidance of golf-course architect Martin Ebert, who with Tom Mackenzie makes up the Mackenzie & Ebert team that advises on six of the 10 current Open venues, the new Royal Portrush projects just the same impenetrability as the Royal Portrush that was host to the Open Championship nearly seven decades ago, when 69 scores were 80 or higher. Frankly, that’s because the 16 holes that survive, though lengthened, are largely as they were back then. What remains is a course with angles and options, characterized by eight doglegs turning at nearly every arrow on your compass. The course’s tough but clear lines amid the occasional vistas that can stretch all the way to the island of Islay 25 miles away are accentuated by ribboned fairways framed by dunes and hearty rough or even meatier marram grass, just as it was when Max Faulkner won in 1951 wearing plus fours and using a putter made of driftwood.
“To have the opportunity to touch such an incredible landscape and a classic Harry Colt design comes with responsibilities but also a tremendous sense of privilege,” Ebert says, pointing out that Royal Portrush had changed, lost and added new holes repeatedly in its first century, in Colt’s original redesign in the 1930s and in the years leading up to the 1951 Open. “The course’s greatest strength is its setting. The dramatic elevation changes lead to exhilarating shots.”
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Challenges to overcome
Still, there was a time when this moment was unthinkable. With the Open in 1951 and the Amateur in 1960, Royal Portrush was clearly in a special class, but for a long time it looked like the R&A wasn’t ever coming back. Even after hosting the British Amateur, six British Senior Opens and a record sellout of the Irish Open in 2012, then-R&A head Peter Dawson could only say in mid-summer that year, “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 … the commercial aspects of it are quite onerous. … There would be much work to do for an Open to go to Portrush. … It’s going to take some time to come to a view, and the view may be ‘No.’ ”
Challenge accepted. Less than two years later, Dawson and the R&A announced Royal Portrush would be getting the Open. What changed? Though there were those dramatic course alterations to be made, what got the Open to Portrush was the sheer force of will of individuals who would not take “no” for an answer. With native sons Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy winning nearly a third of the major championships played from mid-2010 to 2012, Northern Ireland’s golf Q-rating was soaring, and Royal Portrush and its advocates kept making the case that the time was right to come back. Led by Clarke, the players’ input—“the craic” as Dawson called it, a reference to the locals’ unique brand of conversation, jibes and chatter—was a part of the process, certainly. Dawson brushed aside the effect, but Clarke didn’t.
“I was speaking to him and would just subtly slip it in all the time and tell him, ‘It’s good enough; it’s good enough,’ ” Clarke says. “And he listened.”
‘This is Northern Ireland. We’ve been through a lot of pain in the past, but you know something? We’re up and going, and we can manage anything.’ —Wilma Erskine
But so was the relentlessness of Royal Portrush’s membership and its indefatigable club secretary/manager, Wilma Erskine, who made sure all the right people knew all the right things about why Portrush should be getting the Open again.
“When you go back, Royal Portrush was very much at the forefront of golf in the U.K. After the Amateur in 1960 and The Troubles came in the late ‘60s, we were just completely forgotten about,” Erskine says. “Now it’s sort of like, ‘Hellooo, we’re here. Hey, this is Northern Ireland. We’ve been through a lot of pain in the past, but you know something? We’re up and going, and we can manage anything.’ ”
If Erskine is not the engine that powered Portrush’s push for an Open, she most certainly is its spark plug, fuel injector and ignition switch. The first and only woman to be secretary of a Royal club, she has been behind the scenes at Royal Portrush since 1984, getting the word out and getting a bickering local government-and the sometimes intractable ruling bodies of the game, including the European Tour—to see what she saw.
“It’s understanding the process, it’s understanding who you need to get friends with,” she says with not a hint of bluster yet a full measure of self-assuredness. “People early on would say to me, ‘You’re dreaming,’ but if there’s something that annoys me in life, it’s when people say you can’t do something.”
Erskine’s enthusiasm was infectious. (Some even refer to this as “Wilma’s Open,” but she’ll have none of it.) It isn’t just good feelings about having the Open come, it’s getting the cash, including £17 million (almost $22 million) to support all the trappings of contesting a major championship in a town of less than 10,000 people a good hour’s drive from the capital of Belfast. Erskine, who won over Dawson despite his early doubts, knew the payoff would be more than a major event, it would be the biggest sporting event in the country’s history, including an estimated £100 million worth of local economic impact. It sold out in days, the first time an Open ever has had a sellout, even after opening up an additional block of tickets. More than 215,000 spectators are expected for the week.
“I got to the decision-makers and said, ‘You’re going to be the great person in this, not me.’ It’s a legacy,” she says. The agreement to stage the Open at Royal Portrush extends to three Championships to 2040.
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Magnificent test gets an update
Though the major-championship success of its players and the untiring efforts of Erskine’s team were invaluable, at the center of everything was the remarkable venue. When Royal Portrush was the site for the Open in 1951, the legendary golf writer Bernard Darwin was immediately transfixed. “It is truly magnificent,” he wrote in The Times, “a monument more enduring than brass. The course does not disdain the spectacular … does not depend on any such dramatic quality, rather on the combined soundness and subtlety of the architecture. Altogether I find it hard to imagine a more admirable test of golf.”
Even the hole names can be gut punches: Giants Grave, Calamity Corner and Purgatory
From the opening tee shot, Royal Portrush’s challenge isn’t a guessing game like some links. Rather, it’s as straightforward and stout as the drinks served in town at the Harbour Bar, where Clarke and McDowell have their own stools and you’ll find perhaps the most perfect pour of Guinness in all the land. Even Royal Portrush’s bunkers are purposeful, rarely hidden and relatively few by Open Championship standards with only 62 (the least of any Open venue and 140 or so fewer than Royal Lytham & St. Annes). Unlike most Open rota courses, Portrush provides periodic elevations for the golfer to see the full spread of holes that stretch to and away from the ocean, and unseen or not, its force is always felt.
The sense of the sea starts most noticeably with the short third. Here, the tee and green stand just propped up enough to feel like you’re searching for a railing on the Titanic, which as it turns out was built in Belfast. Just then the links lays out in front of you with holes squeezed by dunes every bit as menacing as any dragon in “Game of Thrones.” But it’s the more exposed holes that can be the sternest tests, like the beastly par-4 fourth and the postcard drive-and-a-flip fifth, whose green nearly folds over a cliff edge. Mercilessly, that back edge plays not as a hazard but as out-of-bounds.
Every turn at Royal Portrush hints at that internal grind between an aggressive but risky angle and a safe choice that lightens the load before harder decisions begin. Even the hole names can be gut punches: Giants Grave, Calamity Corner and Purgatory.
“With a lot of these holes, I hope there’s a sense of 50 percent will take the driver and 50 percent lay up with an iron or something similar, just to see them having to make decisions,” Ebert says.
The replacement holes for the old 17th and 18th are found on the new parallel seventh and eighth, taken from land on Royal Portrush’s Valley Course. Ebert fit them neatly into Colt’s aura here, including a re-creation of the original 17th hole’s Big Nellie bunker, a Bunyan-esque catcher’s mitt of sand that could be a round-wrecker if the wind starts throwing its weight around. Coming back the other way is another dogleg daring you to aggressively cut the corner where anything short of 290 yards activates a search party.
Though the club did agree to sacrifice its closing two holes, getting rid of the original finish most likely made for a better ending, Ebert says. (The old 18th hole couldn’t accommodate the giant horseshoe grandstands, and the changes gave the R&A room for a tented village.)
The home stretch now starts at the course’s most famous hole (the 16th, which had been the 14th). Its name, Calamity Corner, is an understatement for a par 3 that could play as long as 236 yards across what Darwin called “its terrifying sandy cliffs and gadarene descent into unknown depths.” In other words, 3-wood, uphill, into the wind, God be with ye.
Following that, the 17th might provide a reprieve-or, in typical Portrush fashion, things could get worse. Even with a new back tee at 408 yards, it could be drivable, and though modern players might not like the blind bunker over the hill, Ebert believes the claret jug ought to require a surgical bludgeoning, not merely a simplistic one.
“It’s a fine line to get the balance right,” Ebert says. “It could be a big swing with certainly some eagles there, but there might be some disasters along the road, too.”
The Open champion will face one final dogleg on the 474-yard 18th, where the right and bold tack navigates hazards and a boundary line to turn a corner and bring the green (and now that epic Open grandstand) into full view. In a way, it feels like rounding that curve by Dunluce Castle, the whole course coming into view in the distance, exhilarating in its possibility. A century ago, Darwin wrote that at Portrush “the temptation to play three rounds a day is very hard to overcome,” and Ebert says that feeling continues today: “There is an element of joy to playing Portrush, and there are so many shots that you really want to hit again if you don’t quite pull them off.”
There could be hidden meaning in those words, about long-overdue second chances, about an opportunity lost, thwarted, reclaimed, and capitalized in ways that overwhelm expectations and change perceptions of Northern Ireland. A transformational moment, bigger even than the filming and tourism created by “Game of Thrones.” No, what Ebert was saying, of course, was all anyone ever talks about when they talk about Royal Portrush: It’s always about the golf.