For the first time since 1951, The Open has come to Royal Portrush and the world’s best will fight it out on a course that many are unfamiliar with.
The Northern Irish stars know their way round the Dunluce links – with Rory McIlroy having shot a course-record 61 here, Graeme McDowell having grown up in Portrush and Darren Clarke having lived in the Antrim town – while others have competed on the course at the Irish Open.
But for many, the 7,344-yard, par-71 challenge will be a brand new test and although it has changed since the last time The Open came to town, the words of Bernard Darwin – journalist for The Times – about Royal Portrush from 1951 still ring true:
“It’s truly magnificent and Mr HS Colt, who designed it in its present form, has thereby built himself a monument more enduring than brass.” Bernard darwin, times journalist
The first time playing the pearl of the Northern Irish coast can be an intense experience, as course veteran McDowell explains:
“The first time I played it, we kind of snuck on because my brother and I weren’t quite 15 handicaps and I think juniors had to be at that level to play. Anyway, we went and played and it was literally like we were at Augusta for the first time. It was a summer evening and I was around 13 years old. Portrush was like this hallowed turf to us and to be playing shots from that incredible land was dream-like stuff.” Graeme McDowell, portrush native
Despite the addition of two new holes since 1951 – the 7th and 8th – and every other hole having been altered in some way, Portrush still maintains course-creator Harry Colt’s design philosophy.
The Dunluce links are a classic, albeit with a modern twist:
“The course is old school, so there's not a great deal of room between the holes. And what room there is, is some pretty steep mounds.You always get a great crowd. At the Irish Opens I've played, you get fantastic crowds, so for The Open to be in Portrush will be great.” Danny Willett, 2016 MAsters champion
Three par 5s – the 2nd, 7th and 12th – and four par 3s – the 3rd, 6th, 13th and 16th – mean the course is a par-71.
Sand is used sparingly, as even the addition of ten bunkers to the existing holes only takes the total to 59 – far fewer than any other venue on The Open rota – and McIlroy acknowledges the changes to the layout since his record-setting 61 as a 16-year-old back in 2005:
“Portrush isn’t going to play firm and fast. It’s a lush links course - even when Royal County Down is bone dry, Portrush will still have a lot of greenness to it.It’s spectacular, it’s unbelievable. It’s certainly a different golf course than the one I grew up playing – it’s bigger, it’s tougher.” Rory McIlroy, course record holder at Portrush
The newly-created 7th and 8th holes mean the old 17th and 18th have been chopped and the tough stretch of 14th to 16th from The 1951 Open are now the closing holes.
The first of those is ‘Calamity’ – a 236-yard par 3 that Head Pro at Royal Portrush Gary McNeill believes could see some players come a cropper:
“The name says it all. The tee shot is slightly up hill and once again the green sits above you. Anything that does not quite make it up there will fall back down off the front.It is one of the highest holes on the course, so the views are spectacular but if the wind gets up then it will be so hard to putt from, let alone shoot from the tee.” Gary McNeill, Head Pro at Royal Portrush
“Do you play safely to the top of the hill and take an iron from there, or do you go for it and take the hole on? That answer to that could decide this Championship. The reward of a well-struck tee shot is you will be down 20 or 30 yards from the green. Those chasing the Claret Jug will be tempted and anyone in the lead could be under pressure to do the same. It is purely risk and reward. It could be a two-shot swing there.” GARY MCNEILL, HEAD PRO AT ROYAL PORTRUSH
And it all ends on ‘Babington’s’, the hole where Max Faulkner played a miraculous shot from against the out-of-bounds fence down the left to help secure the Claret Jug.
Now a 474-yard par 4, the green is unforgiving in design and the strength of wind will dictate the difficulty:
“It is a great second shot. The green sits slightly sideways on, anything to the left will roll down the hill and off and I expect a lot of action down there.The second shot is all about getting the yardage right and being in the right section of a tough green. Depending on the wind, it could well be a strong drive and then mid-iron. It is a tough finishing hole.” GARY MCNEILL, HEAD PRO AT ROYAL PORTRUSH
“It’s huge for The Open to go back and it’s a great course. It’s great for the town of Portrush to have this festival. It’s great for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that we have moved on so much, we can host an event like this.” Padraig Harrington, two-time champion golfer of the year
“I played there in 2012 at the Irish Open. I still remember now I was paired for the first two rounds with Darren Clarke and he had just won The Open the year before.The atmosphere was something else, so I'm sure it's going to be a great championship, a great Open.” Francesco Molinari, reigning champion golfer of the year