This time last year, I had never really played golf before but then I was offered the opportunity to play a round at Royal Portrush and decided I would take it up. I knew before the summer last year that this chance to play one of the world’s best golf courses was coming up in October but it wasn’t until the end of August that I actually got around to doing something about it. Thankfully I managed to get some time with Peter Martin, the PGA professional at Colin Glen Golf Course in West Belfast. Peter is a brilliant teacher and the facilities there are outstanding. There is also now a Toptracer Driving Range where each bay has its own television monitor and you can track your play with incredible accuracy. I went up the other night for some practice and it was packed out. Every bay was full.
Last year then, after a month or so of Peter’s excellent tutelage and the purchase of a reasonable set of second hand clubs, I went up and played Royal Portrush. I had a fantastic day and yes, I did lose seven or eight golf balls and had a few high scores on a number of holes but I also had a birdie at the par three sixth. It was nothing short of a miracle. Those two shots made my day.
I wouldn’t say that that I’ve kept the golf up as I have only played two times since but I’ve got myself to a standard where I can go and play and not disgrace myself. And so I found myself playing one of Scotland’s best courses, Archerfield, last Thursday after which I was able to watch part of the Scottish Open which was being played on the Renaissance Course next door. Having been up to the Irish Open when it was at Portrush and Portstewart, it did strike me that the Scottish Open was considerably smaller in scale, though maybe we just take for granted the fact that our golf tournaments are big. Bigger even than in the country where golf was invented.
This week of course we are hosting the biggest one of them all, The Open. It’s the 148th instalment, sixty-eight years after it was last played in Portrush. It’s taken a huge amount of work to get to this point and awful lot of money – not just on the course but in preparing the town itself also. Some really impressive new pavements, walkways and new public spaces have been delivered at a cost of £6m and a new train station is now open at a cost of £5.6m and of course the road up from Belfast has been seriously upgraded. The course also required serious work with two new holes having to be created so that the 17th and 18th holes had the required space around them for grandstands and the tented village where, I’m happy to admit, I’ll be eating a few prawn sandwiches this Thursday and Friday.
From what I can gather, it has been a relatively smooth process, despite the massive effort and co-ordination required. I’m told that the Royal & Ancient, or R&A as they are better known, have been extremely professional to deal with and the various government departments and tourism bodies have also worked well together to get the event delivered. For the first time, it is completely sold out with over 300,000 tickets sold and the overall economic benefit of the week is being estimated at £120m. Many golf clubs are feeling the benefits directly from new people coming to play. According to one story in the weekend papers, only one group of Americans came to play at Royal Portrush in 1985 when the total revenues from green fees was £35,000. Last year, those revenues had grown to £2.2million. When the Americans call now, they are having to book years in advance.
The good news is that now all of the hard, expensive work has been done, this shouldn’t be a one off. Royal Portrush should now be on the rota of suitable courses and The Open should be back in the not-too-distant future. This week, Royal Portrush is putting this place in a global shop window like never before and I’m really looking forward to getting up to see if Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods can beat my two at the sixth.
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