Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Royal Portrush - Open Championship Update

For many golfers, Royal Portrush remains a mystical place of cascading dunes and golden grasses. The Dunluce links (and its sister Valley course alongside) was designed by the legendary Harry Colt in 1932 and this, too, gives this stretch of Co. Antrim coastline a touch of mysticism. Throw in views to Dunluce Castle and ocean rocks battered by relentless waves and it is easy to understand why this golf course is lauded around the world. It is firmly entrenched in the top echelon of Top 100 world rankings just about everywhere and it isn’t hard to see why. 
It has risen to number one in both the Irish Golfer and Golf World magazine rankings
on the back of the recent upgrades by Mackenzie and Ebert, which include two sparkling new holes (7 & 8). These are modern masterpieces that have comfortably, almost seamlessly, slotted in to the overall rhythm of the course. The two holes that have been lost are the old 17th and 18th which will now be used for the tented village during the Open. Yes, regrettably, the famous ‘Big Nellie’ bunker on 17 has been lost but Martin Ebert added his own version of the giant sand trap to the new 7th during the design stages. 

Tickets for the four days of competition have sold out for the first time (although more go on sale on April 15th) in the Championship’s history and the buzz around Portrush and surrounding areas remains at fever pitch. But what about the golf course and the club itself? How are things proceeding as the island’s biggest ever sporting event is now a mere four months away? The Irish Examiner visited the club recently and spoke to Head Professional, Gary McNeill.  
The 18th green will be surrounded on three sides by grandstands.
Kevin Markham (KM): What will be happening on the course in the coming weeks?
Gary McNeill (GM): It’s all going to change dramatically very quickly. We are going to have a lot of gear arriving as the set up begins. The grandstand building started two days ago. The first two grandstands are going to be the 18th and the 1st tee complex. That’ll be incredible to see. It is a busy road alongside the course so people will be able to see this happening right in front of them, on a daily basis. There will be different things happening every day and all of a sudden you’ll get the big old yellow scoreboards up there, which will really bring it home. 
There will be lots of seating out on the golf course, too, and there’s going to be a special feature at the 13th and 17th greens where we’ll have a grandstand either side of both greens. They will run in parallel, on either side, which is something a little bit different. 
Views over the edge of the 13th green to the 17th green... and on up to
the 18th tee boxes.
KM: How are things shaping up with the new 18th (the original 16th) green and the proposed grandstands?
GM: There’s been quite a bit of work particularly to the right of the green. A lot of space was cleared for the grandstands to continue all the way around the green.  Initially the grandstand was going to be L-shaped but now it will continue the whole way around, like an amphitheatre. I think only Hoylake and maybe Turnberry have the same wrap-around stands. 
The new 7th (on the right) and 8th holes complement Harry Colt's
design elegantly and dramatically.
KM: How are the new holes (7th & 8th) working out and what’s the general feeling on losing the old 17th and 18th?
GM: It was a big decision to remove the 17th and 18th from the layout. There are members who were sorry to see them disappear as there are lots of memories there, and many great events have been contested and finished on those two holes. But we were very lucky to have the opportunity to add two spectacular new holes where we built them. And we also didn’t encounter anything major with environmental issues or endangered species, so that was key. 
To the left of the new 7th the architects (Mackenzie & Ebert) created what’s called dune slack. It’s an exposed sand area (where the old Valley links 5th used to be), which will actually encourage wildlife. For example, the exposed sand encourages bees to burrow in it.  A lot of architects are now leaving such areas of exposed sand. They’ve done it at Royal Troon and a number of other Open venues. 
The approach to the par four 15th and one of the course's most
mesmerising green complexes.
KM: With just over three months to go how much work is left to do on the course?
GM: They are blowing fibre optic cables through at the moment. This will ensure Wi-Fi is set up throughout the course. The spectator areas have been finished and are just growing in. There are fewer and fewer people here actually doing things to the course. Now it’s the actual building of stands, towers and hospitality areas that’s going to take place. 
Views down the 11th hole at Royal Portrush
KM: What were the biggest challenges to becoming Open-ready and how did you overcome them?
GM: Initially the biggest challenge here was convincing the members that this was the right thing to do, creating a legacy of hosting the Open Championship. When we held an EGM, 400 members attended and it was virtually a unanimous decision to proceed. That was a big hurdle to get over.  Once we knew we had this backing it was all systems go. 
The actual course construction happened incredibly quickly. When you’re working with sand and you’ve taken the sod away, you have all this natural drainage which makes such a difference to architects and the teams working alongside. There’s no rock to blast or boulder clay to move so things move fast  
On the retail front, we started to focus on the Open merchandise once the date was set. I linked in with other venue Head Pros and we’ve done a lot of homework here to deliver a nice range of products.

I think the main challenges now lie with Graeme Beatt, our Course Manager, and his staff.  They have done a lot of lovely work on the bunkers and the craftsmanship is there for all to see. They are carefully sanding areas of the course, too, right now, and when the R&A visited recently they were very impressed with the firmness of the fairways, the firmness of the approaches, the firmness of the greens… even in the middle of winter. I know that Martin Slumbers (R&A Chief) was talking about how you challenge these top players. You can’t stop them hitting it 400 yards but you can challenge them by having firm greens. It goes back to that ethos of playing the Open Championship on a links style golf course. 
The par three 6th at Royal Portrush, with views to Dunluce Castle 
KM: How are you protecting the course ahead of the Open? 
GM: Golfers are playing off mats on the fairways. We closed to visitors at the end of October, so only members and guests were able to play, but we have just re-opened to visitors again. April is not particularly heavily booked. May, however, is filling up with play continuing off mats. From 30th June we hand the golf course over to the R&A and it will be closed until the practice days. 

KM: How will the rough be presented for the Championship?
GM: The rough will be very fair. The R&A are keen to produce a fair golf course and they are taking control of the rough at the moment. Remember Carnoustie in 1999, where the head greenkeeper was able to run riot with the rough and the next thing this stuff was everywhere. It made a bit of a mess of the tournament and they don’t want to do a US Open thing where there is so much rough. 

KM: Any thoughts on the winning score at this stage?
GM: Clive Brown, Chair of the Championship Committee, asked me what I thought might win. It all depends on the weather, but I reckon 8 to 12 under. 
The famous Calamity Corner par three is now the 16th (it used to be 14)
and will undoubtedly play a huge part in who wins the Open.
KM: How has the local community been involved? 
GM: The Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council has held a lot of open forums here in Portrush, where people can voice their concerns or ask questions about certain things. Portrush is a busy place in July anyway and the Council is trying to make sure that everyone – spectators and other tourists alike – are looked after. The town has had £17 million spent on it, including new granite street pavements and the new railway station where they knocked down a horrible old wall so you can now see right over the West Bay, which is incredible. Even when you’re driving around Portrush you can see that lots has been done, which will be a lasting legacy after the Championship. Everybody’s benefitting from it. 

KM: Who are the key Royal Portrush players who deserve to be singled out?
GM: Wilma Erskine, the club’s Secretary Manager, has been a huge player. She’s talking about retiring at the end of the year – I personally have worked with her for 20 years and she has been an incredible individual. She’s really driven us towards this Open Championship and made things happen. Peter Dawson had a lot to do with it at the beginning, too. He’s stepped down now and Martin Slumbers has come in but I know Wilma gives Peter a lot of credit for what he did right at the outset.
And then of course there’s the First Minister, Arlene Foster, and the then First Minister, Martin McGuinness, who signed it off. Within the Club, the Chairman of the Championship Committee is John Bamber, and Phillip Tweedie is the Deputy Chief Marshal so they are two key players who have been heavily involved over the last four to five years. 
The new par five 7th hole. It's a beast of 590 yards
KM: Last question: what are your favourite changes to the course?
GM: The tee shot on the new 590 yard par five 7th. I think it’s amazing. Every time I stand on that tee box and have a look down the hole – it’s unbelievably inspiring. It just fits the eye so well. The tee shot on the next hole (the new 430 yard dogleg 8th), from the Championship tee requires a carry across a sandy area (mentioned earlier). I don’t think anybody could have imagined that those two holes would have worked out as well as they have done. They’re in a really scenic part of the golf course and they’ve really got the wow factor with the sound of the ocean behind the big sand dune.
Views over Calamity Corner's greens to the Valley course below.
Royal Portrush is guaranteed to get the Open Championship another two times over the next 40 years.  If July 2019 proves a huge success, as everyone hopes it will, then it may be returning sooner than the usual eight to nine year cycle suggests. And with the infrastructure complete, both in the town and around the links itself, the R&A will find a course and region fully prepared and ready to host golf’s oldest and best Major. 

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