After a wild, circuitous journey, it seems likely that the 2019 Open Championship will return to Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush Golf Club. Reports from the British and Irish dailies ran rampant on Saturday evening, though the R&A has yet to confirm the deal. Two sources close to the situation confirmed to Golf.com, however, that the plans are at an advanced stage.
Royal Portrush, of course, is the only Irish course ever to host the Open Championship, back in 1951. Lobbying for a return engagement began in earnest in 2011, when three recent major championship winners with direct ties to Portrush voiced their support: Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open winner, grew up in Portrush, Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open Championship winner who now lives there and Rory McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open winner who set the Portrush course record with 61 as a 16-year-old.
R&A chief executive Peter Dawson was direct in addressing the situation prior to the 2011 Open. “Obviously there’s much emotion about Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy’s victories, and why don’t we go back to Northern Ireland and perhaps Portrush in particular?” Dawson said. “And I understand that. You can’t, however, base where you hold the Open on where the players come from. I think that should be obvious to anyone.”
The R&A downplayed the rumors In a statement released to Press Association Sport on Sunday: "As part of our commitment to examine the feasibility of staging an Open Championship at Portrush, the R&A continues to discuss this at a conceptual level with Royal Portrush Golf Club and the Northern Ireland Executive. Discussions have been positive but we are still some distance from being in a position to take the Open to Northern Ireland."
The hesitation on Dawson’s part is likely fueled by persistent political unrest in Northern Ireland and certainly had nothing to do with the quality of Royal Portrush’s Dunluce Championship course. After all, it has ranked in Golf Magazine’s Top 20 in the world since 1991. Dawson called Portrush, “a terrific golf course.” It seemed that he was also concerned with infrastructure. Even McDowell mentioned that he would be in favor of bringing another event to Portrush and seeing how it fared, with the hopes of luring an Open thereafter.
McDowell’s trial event turned out to be the 2012 Irish Open. To say it was successful would be gigantic understatement. Returning to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1953, and to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1947, the Irish Open set European Tour attendance records, 112,000 for the four days, 131,000 for the week. Still, Dawson frumped about infrastructure. Perhaps it was a higher power—a Bishop—that persuaded Dawson to act.
In October 2013, PGA of America president Ted Bishop confided that his organization was studying the possibility of moving the PGA Championship out of the United States in certain years—and that his first choice would be Royal Portrush. Was this a direct tweak at Dawson, with whom Bishop had feuded over the long-putter anchoring ban? Unclear—but it sparked renewed speculation that Royal Portrush would host a major by 2020, even if shockingly, it would be the PGA Championship, not the Open Championship.
In mid-November 2013, as reported by James Corrigan in London’s Telegraph, McDowell could barely contain his glee. “It’s always been a dream of mine to play in an Open at Royal Portrush. But a USPGA would do nicely.”
Nowhere in the mission statement of the R&A does it mention “dream fulfillment.” For course connoisseurs, for the game’s greatest players and for three champion Ulster golfers in particular, an Open at Royal Portrush is no longer a dream deferred.