Ten years on: How hosting the Irish Open paved the way for Royal Portrush to stage the race for the Claret Jug
In the week that Mount Juliet hosts the Irish Open, Paul Kelly looks back on the historic staging of the tournament at Royal Portrush in 2012. The event, won by Welshman Jamie Donaldson, attracted 130,000 spectators and was the first ‘sold out’ tournament in the history of The European Tour paving the way for the return of the Open Championship to the venue in 2019.
THERE was a period (2010-2014) when this small part of the world could rightly claim to be at the centre of the golfing universe.
It seemed that every time you tuned in to watch a major championship there was a home grown talent competing for the game’s highest honours.
The on-course success of Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke kept Irish golf firmly in the spotlight.
And it was in this environment that Royal Portrush made it known that the club was interesting in staging an Irish Open, bringing it back north for the first time since 1953.
As a tournament the Irish Open had always been a staple of the European Tour (now DP World Tour), but post financial crisis and the loss of a key sponsor, the event was at a crossroads.
On the face of it, a move north made perfect sense but making it happen and making a success of it would ultimately involve significant commitments from governments north and south of the border, the players, Royal Portrush, and the European Tour.
John Bamber was the Tournament Chairman at Royal Portrush for both the Irish Open and more recently the Open Championship.
“Around 2007/2008 the club made a decision to look again at hosting a professional event,” said John.
“We spoke with the Tour about the Irish Open and we managed to get a meeting with Arlene Foster, who was then minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) along with a leading civil servant, David Sterling.
“We talked about hosting the event and incredibly they said it was a good idea. We happened just to hit at the right time. Other plans were in the pipeline to host the MTV Music Awards and the Giro [d'Italia].”
Further meetings were held with politicians on both sides of the divide at Stormont but while enthusiasm was high, the fact was that the European Tour had a long-term contract with the Irish Government to stage the tournament south of the border.
Bamber added: “In fairness, it was the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who signed off moving the tournament to the north for one year. The Irish economy had suffered badly in the recession. Had the Celtic Tiger still been in full flow bringing it north would have been unlikely, but sometimes an ill wind, etc etc.
“I got a call in late 2011 from David Sterling that the plan to host the Irish Open had secured government support. The formal announcement was made at the start of January 2012, which gave us just seven months to get prepared.
“I remember attending a council meeting after the deal had been done and having this scary thought that now we actually had to put the event on and the spotlight was going to be on us.”
The job of staging the event fell to the European Tour’s Championship Director, Antonia Beggs.
“I was the staging director for the Ryder Cup at the time and I was kind of used to fitting square pegs in round holes when it came to delivering golf tournaments,” said Antonia who now works in sports marketing.
“I had been lucky that I had worked on some Irish Opens in the past and it always blew me away how the fans supported their national open compared to other countries.
“The ticket sales were something of a surprise and it happened in the blink of an eye. Just think back to the pro-am. We had Bill Murray there who had flown over from the States. It was a day of slight insanity. Imagine, playing in that pro-am and there are 15,000 people on the ground watching? It must have been terrifying.”
The punters continued to flow in through the gates during tournament week even in the face of some testing weather conditions.
Antonia added: “The players were hugely positive. They were blown away by the people turning up. Ultimately, for professional athletes, a lot of the reason why they do stuff is to feel that connection and it was there in spades at Portrush.”
Without doubt the 2012 Irish Open paved the way for the Open Championship that followed in 2019. The record-breaking crowds, the smooth event management, the general sense of goodwill and enthusiasm ensured that the R&A had to seriously consider bringing the world’s oldest major back to the North Coast.
“We had all the luck in the world,” added Bamber.
“We had the right political environment, that was vitally important. We had the support of the R&A and Peter Dawson who was open-minded about the opportunity. We had professionals competing at the highest levels around the world and we had supportive local, national and worldwide press.
“But ultimately, we had to prove that we could host the event. Without it I strongly suggest that I could have been receiving a letter in 2013/2014 saying that they had looked into it but decided that the venue couldn’t accommodate in excess of 20,000 people every day.
“The Irish Open was the catalyst for 2019 and everything that has followed.”
JAMIE Donaldson wants to know when the Irish Open is returning to Royal Portrush.
“I missed out on playing in the Open Championship – which was a shame – what a venue,” said the 2012 winner.
“Winning the Irish Open opened lots of doors for me. I was eligible to play in all the big events after winning, it was a massive career booster.”
The 2012 event was a ‘homecoming’ of sorts for the likes of Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington but Ireland’s major champions never really managed to get into contention.
Harrington recorded the best finish – tied for seventh – with McIlroy posting a final round 67 to finish in a tie for 10th.
The local lad, McDowell insisted it had been a great ‘advertisement’ for golf on the north coast.
“Yeah, the weather could be a little better but that's Ireland, isn't it,” he said.
“But this crowd have been amazing, 30,000 people every day. Their spirits would not be dampened. Just think how much fun they would have had if the sun would have been shining. Hopefully we'll be back and hopefully we'll be back very soon.”
Donaldson came into the event trying desperately to shake off an unwanted moniker as one of the best players on Tour without a win to his name.
In 254 European Tour starts he had chalked up 32 top tens and heading to the North Coast, there was no suggestion that he was one of the players to watch.
However, Jamie was more upbeat. He had successfully come through qualifying for the Open Championship and had found something with his swing.
He also had the benefit of having played Royal Portrush in his amateur days although he admitted that particular outing hadn’t been much advantage given that he played ‘terrible’.
After opening rounds of 68 (which included a hole in one) and 67, a third round 69 in some awful conditions propelled him to the top of the leaderboard.
Beginning the fourth round with a one-shot lead, Donaldson birdied five of his last seven holes to shoot a fourth straight round in the 60s and finish clear of playing partner Anthony Wall (69), Rafa Cabrera-Bello (66) and Fabrizio Zanotti (66).
“It feels a bit surreal to be honest,” said Donaldson.
“I didn't look at the leaderboard all day. I just felt really good out there. It's just been a case of keeping going. I knew that what I was doing was right.”
The victory, sealed with a 25-foot birdie on the last, was met with massive cheers from the packed crowd.
“It was electric all week,” added Jamie.
“It was special. The massive crowds, they were unbelievable, it really felt like a proper event. Portrush was a great town and there was a good buzz.”