Open organisers staggered by phenomenal interest in tournament's return to north
The organisers of golf's Open Championship have said they are staggered by the level of interest in the tournament's historic return to Northern Ireland.
The Royal and Ancient described the demand for tickets to see July's sporting showpiece at Royal Portrush Golf Club as "phenomenal".
The tournament, which is returning to Northern Ireland and Portrush for the first time in almost 70 years, sold out last August – 10 months before the world's top golfers tee off on the scenic Causeway Coast. Only tickets for practice days remain.
On a winter planning visit to the course, Mike Woodcock, director of corporate communications at the R&A, said the pace at which tickets went took them by surprise.
"We were confident there would be huge excitement here but I think even we were staggered by just how much there was when the championship days sold out in two months," he said.
"It was phenomenal really and I think that speaks volumes about the enthusiasm, not only for golf but for sport here in Northern Ireland.
"The Open is one of the world's greatest sporting events, the world's greatest golfers will be playing here, and I think it's just fantastic. We're seeing a real buzz."
Due to the anticipated large crowds, this year's Open was the first ever all-ticketed event in the Major tournament's history – 190,000 people are expected through the gates.
After meeting club officials, tourism bosses, emergency services and other state agencies involved in putting on the tournament, Mr Woodcock said plans were well ahead of schedule.
The R&A has already predicted that the tournament will deliver an £80 million boost to the local economy, through combined direct spend and the value of the media exposure of the destination.
"Most of all I think it will be the number of golf fans who will come here from around the world, who have seen images of the Open on television and want to come and play here where they have seen Rory [McIlroy] playing, where they have seen Tiger [Woods] playing, and I think that's what the real benefit is and I think years on from now that will continue," said Mr Woodcock.
Aine Kearney, from Tourism NI, is coordinating efforts to deliver Northern Ireland's first Open in seven decades.
"This will be broadcast to 80 million homes across 150 countries around the world," she said.
"And whilst the focus of the attention will be on the golf, what they will also get to see is the absolutely amazing landscape as well as a lot of the stories of the experiences that the players are having, the media are having – you can't buy that level of exposure.
"That's why hosting global major events has been such a critical part to our long-term growth strategy and we believe it's firmly one of the reasons why we are within touching point of becoming a £1 billion industry.
"It's all about getting those positive messages out - to change the narrative about Northern Ireland and show the people of the world what an exciting, vibrant and beautiful place this is to come and visit."
Ms Kearney insisted the political impasse at Stormont, which has seen Northern Ireland without devolved government for two years, has not disrupted the plans.
"What I have seen is once again a fantastic NI PLC getting together and, regardless of what challenges they have, they are single-minded in delivering the safest and best Open and any hurdles that have been presented to date have been quickly overcome," she said.
Tourism NI hopes the Open will help drive Northern Ireland's golf tourism spend from £40 million per year to £50 million by 2020, contributing to the overall goal of making the region's tourist offering a £1 billion annual industry.
Royal Portrush member John Bamber, who is chairman of the club's Open Championship committee, said the dream of once again hosting the tournament was approaching reality.
"We have been working on the project probably for the best part of 10 years and sometimes you do have to pinch yourself to think 'My goodness, it really is going to happen now in the next seven months'," he said.
"It's been 68 years and many people thought the Open Championship was very much in the past tense, that it would never return to the shores of Ireland and Northern Ireland here."
Mr Bamber said when the tickets went on sale in July, he and friends had discussed how fast they would go.
"We said 'I wonder what percentage will be sold by Christmas, by Easter, will it sell out?'," he said.
"We all agreed it would sell out, but nobody genuinely really thought that by the start of the autumn there would be no tickets left.
"I was totally shocked but, on reflection, I now understand the excitement amongst the community here, the international community, the business community - everybody wants a piece of this and I really am proud to be involved and we have had a terrific team here."
He praised his fellow members for agreeing to a redesign of the course that was pivotal to the R&A agreeing to an Open return.
"I believe our wider membership who have embraced his have an enormous sense of pride and satisfaction about seeing their club - remember we are but temporary custodians - but to see their club elevated again to the premier stage," he said.
Mr Bamber added: "It really makes us feel that we have contributed something, that the club itself has given something back to not only the local community but to the country as a whole and there are very few assets around that have that privilege to be able to do that.
"It's something I believe that's very, very special and perhaps it might only sink in fully after the event has been here in July 2019."