Three major winners want the Open to return to Northern Ireland. Here's why it won't happen

Three major winners want the Open to return to Northern Ireland. Here’s why it won’t happen

Due to lingering political and social unrest, it is unlikely the Open will return to Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.
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The United Kingdom is known both for its summer slate of great sporting events and (often) the complete absence of summer weather. No sooner has Wimbledon concluded than the Open Championship begins, and the world watches both. In Northern Ireland — part of the United Kingdom, albeit a hotly disputed one — another summer pastime draws an equally impressive mix of passionate participants and a slavishly attentive press corps: riots.

It's serious business, of course. Violence in Belfast has injured dozens of civilians and police officers in recent days. But these riots are about as spontaneous as the Open. The unrest is an annual tradition by which one can set the clock back a few hundred years.

Every second week of July sees the rerouting of coat-trailing parades by the Orange Order, a fraternal Protestant group that might charitably be described as being wary of its Catholic neighbors. The result is orchestrated riots that risk putting to the torch any building that doesn't serve liquor or dispense unemployment benefit checks.

All in all, a perfect environment for an Open Championship, wouldn't you say?

The only Open ever played outside England or Scotland was held in Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush. But that was in 1951, when an uneasy peace reigned. The violent conflict that erupted in 1969 lasted for 25 years, thereby freeing the R&A from having to consider a return visit. Peter Dawson, the R&A's chieftain, must miss those simpler times.

After major wins by Northern Irish stars Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, a minor campaign has gathered steam to cajole the R&A into bringing the game's oldest major back to Royal Portrush. All three players have voiced public support to the campaign, and one would expect nothing else in this relatively insignificant case of local boosterism. After all, McDowell grew up in Portrush, Clarke now lives there, and McIlroy set the course record at Royal Portrush as a 16-year-old.

Even golfers from the Republic of Ireland are supportive of the notion. "I think it is realistic," Padraig Harrington, a two-time Open champion, said Tuesday at Muirfield.

Dawson has played along gamely. He has praised Royal Portrush as one of the world's finest links (which it is, though the two closing holes are utter duds), but raised the usual concerns about infrastructure (though the dearth of hotel rooms and decent transportation is no worse, and arguably better, than at other Open venues, like Carnoustie).

"Portrush can get it done. The R&A can get it done. The bigger decision is the political will to get it done," Harrington says. It's a noble sentiment in support of a good cause, but it's a lost cause.

Just last weekend McDowell spotted Dawson on the course at Muirfield and shouted across the fairway that he was looking forward to being an ambassador at a Royal Portrush Open in the near future. Dawson must have been tempted to tell him he that has a better chance of playing an Open hosted by Donald Trump.

The Open will not — and should not — return to Northern Ireland.

The sectarian intransigence that ignites the summer riot season is just as ingrained in Northern Ireland today as it was 19 years ago when ceasefires ended the most violent phase of the conflict. That is not going to change anytime soon, and the promise of seeing the world's best country clubbers play ball isn't likely to dissuade rioters from taking to the streets.

Rather it would serve only to provide an even bigger captive audience for this annual farce as shiftless thugs who think a sand wedge involves two slices of bread fight skirmishes of ever-diminishing relevance.

Perhaps someday we'll see balls in the air in July at Royal Portrush, but not soon. Not while McDowell is competitive, and perhaps not even while McIlroy is. And certainly not while petrol bombs and incendiary politicking already occupy all the available airspace.