The decision of the European Tour to award Royal Portrush the Irish Open this summer could have significant spin-offs for some of Donegal’s leading links courses.
Most of Donegal’s links courses are within two hours drive of the coastal town in north Antrim and with Donegal offering some of the best courses in the country at affordable rates, those involved in the sport in the north-west are expecting exciting times ahead.
Northern Ireland’s three major winners in the last two years have been credited with assisting Royal Portrush in getting the vote and in actual fact all three made their way to some of Donegal’s leading courses after their wins.
Darren Clarke was at Murvagh following his victory in the Open Championship at Sandwich last July. The Dungannon native’s win came subsequent to the successive US Open victories of Graeme McDowell in 2010 and Rory McIlroy’s landslide triumph a year later. McDowell was getting snapped in Rosapenna immediately after his victory at Pebble Beach, while McIlroy took the trophy to Ballyliffin in front of the UTV cameras for a promotional promise days after winning at Congressional in June. There’s a strong link between those who compete on the links.
Frank Casey Jnr, who is Rosapenna’s Director of Golf, has welcomed the news and believes the exposure Royal Portrush gets this summer can have a positive impact for links golf in the north of Ireland as a whole.
“Hopefully,” he said optimistically. “It’s brilliant news for golf in this part of the country and everyone I’ve spoken to is talking about going. From a logistics point of view we’re probably just that little on the far side for people to base themselves here in Downings but there’s likely to be some good knock-on effects.”
Casey, who himself is a member of Royal Portrush, explains Rosapenna and similar clubs are pro-active in spreading their net. As a member of North and West Coast Links, a company which owns and markets its 11 members of which Ballyliffin, Narin and Portnoo, Donegal Golf Club and Royal Portrush are also included, Rosapenna will be represented at a trade fair in Orlando from January 24-28 and their two rugged courses - The Old Tom Morris and Sandy Hills, which are respectively ranked as the 34th and 25th best courses in Ireland in Golf Monthly’s Top 100 - will be showcased.
North and West Coast Links have a promotional magazine with last year’s Open champion Clarke on the front cover along with news of Royal Portrush’s receipt of the Irish Open - so there’s a strong marketing pull.
“Perhaps next year it would be more likely we would be able to attract visitors from the United Kingdom and the United States,” Casey continued. “A lot of people would already have their golfing holidays booked for the year ahead but there tends to be a habit with Americans to book Scotland one year and then Ireland the next and we would like to entice them here.
“With the Irish Open taking place in Royal Portrush in June it should get some great media coverage and let’s face it, the aim of everyone at Portrush is not only to host a good Irish Open but to prove they have a capabilities to have the British Open there in the coming years. I’m sure they can because it’s a fantastic course and one we are proud to be linked with.”
Ballyliffin Golf Club’s general manager John Farren is also secretary of the marketing initiative, which was named as European Golf Destination of the Year last year, and he too will be making the trip to Florida at the end of the month.
“It’s a PGA show and the biggest golf show in the world,” he said. “It’s all great PR for the north and west of Ireland and our golf courses and there will be tour operators and journalists invited over to play the courses, check out the facilities and review what we have. The decision to award Royal Portrush the Irish Open was only made last week and already we have seen a substantial increase in bookings here for the week beforehand.”
Ballyliffin’s links with Royal Portrush and Portstewart are already strong. Every October the three courses host the Great North Links, a three-day competition encompassing 18 holes on each that attracted an entry field of 400 last year. Ballyliffin’s Glashedy Links is the highest ranked course in Donegal at 13th nationwide, while the Old Links jumped 10 places to 22nd. Geographically, Ballyliffin is the closest of the three Donegal courses and talks have already been made to make that distance even shorter.
“We’ve already had discussions at ministerial level for Donegal County Council and Limavady Borough Council to ensure the ferry, which runs from Greencastle to Magilligan Point, is in operation,” Farren added. “This will shave a little travelling time off between here and Portrush with the Irish Open being on and also, the year afterwards, Derry will be the British City of Culture, so it will greatly add to the experience.”
Narin and Portnoo have recently jumped in the ratings of links courses and are 43rd in Ireland overall, thanks to their major improvements. Professional Connor Mallon is confident the announcement will be very good news for the county and region.
“Having the Irish Open practically on our doorstep can only be good for golf clubs in Donegal,” he said. “In Narin and Portnoo we are actively marketing our course all over the world, and the fact that the world’s top professionals will be in the area for a full week at the end of June will be of great benefit.
“We have made great strides in marketing in recent years following our major improvement works and hopefully this will give a further boost to our club and to golf clubs in Donegal in general.”
At Donegal Golf Club in Murvagh, shop assistant Kathleen Rose said that bookings in late June have not particularly increased with the Irish Open coming up but the course, ranked 16th in Ireland, has a firm record of retaining customers.
“Our bookings for peak season, between Easter and Halloween, are good and were good before the news about Royal Portrush was announced,” she said. “Generally we have groups in the summer, they play a few rounds of golf and before they leave they would book the following year so it’s steady in that respect.
“We’re fortunate enough to have a lot of groups from the United States, from England and Scotland and from Switzerland and Germany coming year after year. The Irish Open coming to Royal Portrush is great for the region. It’s brilliant news. Maybe the interest in playing in the north-west will increase after a little while when people see what is on offer.”
This year’s Irish Open, which runs from June 28 till July 1, will be the first time the competition has been played at Royal Portrush since 1947. The Irish Open was last staged in Northern Ireland in 1953, at Belvoir Park in Belfast.
The decision to move the European Tour event north from Killarney, Co Kerry, comes on the back of the achievements of Northern Ireland’s three major winners McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke, while two-time Open champion and 2008 USPGA winner Pádraig Harrington is also a member at Portrush.
McDowell and Clarke have homes in Portrush and they and McIlroy, whom are all honorary members of Ballyliffin, backed the bid to bring the Irish Open to the famous links course. In fact, it was only this week McIlroy decided to confirm his participation in the Irish Open and the Holywood, Co Down, native will miss another prestigious event that weekend, the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club - the venue of his US Open triumph.
The opportunity to play on a links style course and the timing of the tournament, in a prime slot just three weeks before the Open Championship gets underway at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s, means that more of the world’s best players are likely to participate and that can only be good news for any golfing fan, while the clubs of the north and west of Ireland and Donegal in particular can also pick from the fruits.
“The Irish Open will give the area considerable spotlight and it shows the axis of power is shifting in Ireland from south to north,” John Farren concluded. “Maybe years ago when the Troubles were at their height Donegal and Inishowen were forgotten about. People thought we were from a different planet but things like this are helping to break that mould. All in all this announcement is massive news for every golf club in the north-west.”