Does the Open rota need to be re-evaluated?

The British Open Championship is the biggest and most coveted tournament on the golfing schedule, and will remain as such. However, with a seemingly unstructured and discretionary process of course selection in place, coupled with the success of the Irish Open, fresh calls have been made for change. Last year, the R&A’s Chief Executive, Peter Dawson, said he would consider calls to turn Royal Portrush into an Open Venue, and the success of last week’s tournament – which saw over 130,000 visitors travel to Antrim – has significantly increased dialogue on the subject. So, should Portrush be re-instated?

As it stands, there are nine courses on the Open Rota, five in Scotland and four in England – St Andrews, Carnoustie, Muirfield, Turnberry, Royal Troon, Royal Lytham, Royal St George’s, Royal Birkdale and Royal Liverpool. The only thing set in stone is thatSt Andrewshosts the Open every five years, with the R&A deciding roughly five years in advance where the other tournaments will be held. Generally, the R&A tries to alternate betweenEnglandandScotland.

No one can dispute the significance of St Andrews- the ‘Home of Golf’ – as a golfing destination, or raise any major objections to its regular staging of the Open. But is it right that it has hosted the tournament 28 times, whilst Northern Irelandand Walesboast a total of one? Given recent developments, the case is perhaps stronger for Northern Ireland, but I find it hard to accept the British Open hasn’t been held outside England or Scotland since 1951; that there are no venues in either of those British nations that are viable Open destinations. The case is perhaps stronger forNorthern Ireland, but something labelled as ‘British’ surely has to be represented outside ofEngland andScotland?

The case for Northern Irish inclusion has picked up considerably over the past couple of years, significantly aided by Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke winning major titles at the Open and US Open. After Clarke’s triumph, pressure increased on Dawson, who said, in July 2011:

“I think we’re all very aware of the fact that three winners fromNorthern Ireland increases the interest level in this.”

He said Portrush was good enough to stage an open, but remained concerned about logistical and commercial factors.

“The usual mixture of a great course and plenty of infrastructure, combined with a prospect of commercial success, is what’s needed.

“No doubt about the golf course at Portrush, although there might be one or two things one would do, but the other two are what we have to look at.”

The success of the Irish Open, no doubt, will add more pressure, but has it done enough to warrant a place of the rota? As Dawson said, the course is good enough, and the response of the players after the tournament would suggests it is as good a venue as any on the current rotation. All the players also paid huge testament to the wonderful galleries present at Portrush. In stark contrast to some American crowds – who feel the need to shout ludicrous things like ‘mashed potato’ – the spectators were well behaved, respectful and knowledgeable.

The tournament was also played in tremendous spirit, with players interacting with fans, touring professionals Thorbjorn Oleson and Joel Sjoholm giving tickets away, and even police offering to give lifts to the course. That is the beauty of the Irish people and the Irish way, and it really would be a shame if a compromise couldn’t be reached and a venue re-instated to the roster. The fact the Northern Irish Tourist Board sponsored the event also shows the level of passion, commitment and dedication to the cause.

Logistics could be the make or break, however, and you do understand the R&S’s concern. Having said that, more than 130,000 graced Portrush at the Irish Open, with very few complaints about transport. Whilst another 100,000 would be expected at the Open, last week’s event showed it is possible, and more importantly, there is a whole army of people willing to do everything in their power to make it work. The truth of the matter is that we won’t know until we try it, and the prospective success clearly outweighs the slight gamble. The Irish Open received so much publicity on both sides of the Atlantic and was such a success, it really would be a huge shame if Portrush or a Northern Irish course wasn’t re-instated. The same also applies for Wales after the success of the 2010 Ryder Cup and the Wales Open. There are numerous courses, such as Royal Porthcrawl, that are easily accessible and good enough to stage an Open.

Let’s hope the matter of Open eligibility is thoroughly investigated and the right conclusions are reached.

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