ON the multi-million pound merry-go-round that is the Open Championship rota, Royal Portrush was officially invited to hop aboard yesterday.
Contrary to popular opinion, though, there won't be a course getting the heave-ho. It seems there is plenty of room on this particular ride. Turnberry, the iconic Ayrshire links that has recently been acquired by Donald Trump, had been viewed in some quarters as the most vulnerable of the venues as confirmation of Portrush's return to the scene loomed.
Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the Royal & Ancient, has acted quickly to quell any fears, however. "Nothing is coming off the rota, absolutely not," he insisted. "We are very happy with all our Open venues. In fact, I've emailed them all today, saying to them that Royal Portrush is an addition, not a substitution. They are all firmly in our plans for the future."
The future is certainly bright for Royal Portrush although exactly when the celebrated Antrim links, which last staged the Open in 1951, will host golf's oldest major again is not yet carved in stone. Due to improvements to infrastructure and some major renovations to the course, which the R&A will invest "several million in", the much-touted year of 2019 is the earliest it could possibly return. St Andrews has it next year with Royal Troon booked in for 2016. Royal Birkdale is expected to host the championship in 2017 with Carnoustie the likely destination a year later. Then it would be either Portrush or Trump's Turnberry in 2019.
"Much work is required at Portrush before the Open returns," added Dawson, on an overhaul that could include two new holes to replace the existing 17th and 18th. "There are planned course enhancements and infrastructure development that will require ratification by the club's members and the planning authorities. We'll not be able announce a date for the first event until these permissions are in place. I think the club will hold a Extraordinary General Meeting in due course and the members have the right to say 'no'. It's a democracy. 2019 is the earliest it can be but it may be we have to wait a year or two longer than that."
The wait will be worth it for those who have campaigned for Portrush's elevation back to the major championship arena. "This is the second St Andrews agreement for Northern Ireland and it was a lot less painful than the previous one," joked the country's First Minister Peter Robinson, as he contrasted the relatively tranquil meetings with the St Andrews-based R&A and those boisterous multi-party political talks about Northern Ireland's future that led to the original St Andrews Agreement of 2006.
Since Max Faulkner won the last Open to be held at Portrush 63 years ago, Northern Ireland, ravaged by sectarian violence, has been to hell and back. The return of golf's biggest and most historic championship, however, has provided further recognition of the strides being made in this troubled land. "We're a society that's being transformed," added Robinson. "This is what peace and stability looks like. These men [the R&A] wouldn't have dreamed of coming here 20 years ago. It shows the new Northern Ireland, a confident Northern Ireland in the new era, and it provides people with a look at what normality looks like."
Dawson added: "The history here has caused some reputational damage over time, I think everyone knows that. We're very happy that's in the past."
In this golfing hotbed, Royal Portrush has been handed one of golf's hottest tickets with an announcement that Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister, described as "out of this world".
Fred Daly, a product of the town, won the Open in 1947 while Graeme McDowell, another son of Portrush, claimed US Open glory in 2010. Throw in the exploits of both Darren Clarke, the Open champion in 2011 who has a home overlooking the club, and double major champion Rory McIlroy, and Northern Ireland's golfing pedigree is undeniable. It is finally set to be recognised again. "It's been more than 60 years since the Open was played here and that's been too long," said Dawson.