It was a 11 years ago at Carnoustie when an 18-year-old amateur posted the only bogey-free round on the first day of the 2007 British Open.
Rory McIlroy came into his first interview room and charmingly launched his global celebrity. One fact in his introductory press conference stood out.
“I shot 61 at Portrush, which is 11 under,” he said. “That’s probably my best round of golf ever.”
Royal Portrush was one of those mystical courses that always showed up near the top of rankings for greatest courses in the world that few people had ever been to. Like Royal Dornoch – Donald Ross’ home course in the Scottish highlands – Portrush was a little off the beaten path on the northern edge of Northern Ireland.
McIlroy’s arrival and Padraig Harrington’s peak coinciding that week at Carnoustie, however, reopened the door to conversations about Portrush’s potential place in the Open rota. It hosted the only Open Championship outside of Scotland and England – won by Max Faulkner back in 1951, before venue infrastructure was a prime criteria for hosting a major championship. Decades of political unrest in Northern Ireland made returning a non-starter and left Portrush – despite its lofty world ranking – in the discard pile with long outgrown historic venues like Royal Cinque Ports, Prestwick and Mussleburgh.
Then Northern Irishmen Graeme McDowell, McIlroy and Darren Clarke won three of five majors in 2010-11, and Royal Portrush got swept up in the momentum of their consistent advocacy.
“I think we’re all very aware of the fact that three winners from Northern Ireland increases the interest level in this, and we have said we’ll take a closer look at Portrush,” former R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said the day after Clarke’s 2011 Open Championship win at Royal St. Georges. “The usual mixture of a great course and plenty of infrastructure combined with a prospect of commercial success is what’s needed. No doubt about the golf course at Portrush, although there might be one or two things one would do. But the other two are what we have to look at.”
Three years later, after an Irish Open set attendance records with 112,000 fans over four days at Portrush, Dawson confirmed that the Open was returning across the Irish Sea for the 2019 Open Championship.
“It has been more than 60 years since the Open was played here, and it’s been too long,” Dawson said. “And we’re very excited to be coming back.”
Dreams of a return to Portrush started in the immediate wake of that 2007 Open where McIlroy debuted and Harrington won. Dublin was coming off a successful turn as 2006 Ryder Cup host, where crowds happily flocked to the far-less-historic K Club despite abysmal weather.
Wilma Erskine, the club secretary/manager and Portrush resident for 34 years, still has the minutes of a club meeting in 2007 when officials started seriously considering wooing the R&A back with something more than a Senior Open or British Amateur.
“You said that kind of tongue-in-cheek then,” Erskine recalled in May, with the club already busily building the infrastructure 14 months in advance of the 2019 Open. “But where there’s a will there’s a way. You want to something enough, you can find a way to get it.”
Its idyllic location overlooking the North Atlantic and the Giant’s Causeway had always been inviting. The town and the roads to get there gradually grew along with the energy from increased golf tourism as four of the last seven Irish Opens have been staged in the north including world No. 1 Royal County Down, Portstewart and Ballyliffin.
Royal Porthrush’s Dunluce Course – as brawny as it’s always been since Harry Colt reworked the Old Tom Morris course in 1929 – made the biggest investment when it replaced its 17th and 18th holes that covered the least inspiring flat land near the clubhouse and built two new world-class holes amidst the most striking dunes on the property. Stealing some land from its adjacent Valley Course, architect Martin Ebert built a new seventh and eighth holes that fit seamlessly into the rhythm of the course between the original sixth and seventh holes.
No. 7 – a striking par 5 that snakes its way uphill along the base of a massive dune ridge – is easily the most memorable on an already world-renowned links. They even recreated the famous “Big Nellie” bunker from the original 17th hole to sit yawning on the right side of the new seventh.
The new holes also allow for a more dramatic finish, with its famous uphill par-3 “Calamity” extended to 230 yards and situated as the new 16th, followed by the driveable par-4 “Purgatory.”
With only 64 bunkers – by far the fewest of any Open venue – the wind, rough and brilliant Colt green complexes will pose an unforgettable challenge to the world’s best players. They’ll be boasting and toasting the Open’s return after 68 years in the intimate Harbour Bar along the wharf, which reputedly pours the finest pint of Guinness on all of Ireland.
It seems fitting that Carnoustie hands the baton to its Northern Irish neighbor after lighting the wick for its renaissance 11 years ago.
“I never thought it was going to happen in my life that I would be able to play an Open Championship in Northern Ireland,” a grown up McIlroy said this year.
Once the world gets a major look at it next summer, there’s no way Royal Portrush will have to wait 68 years before playing host again.