In 1951, the British Open was played outside of Scotland and England for the first time, crossing the Irish Sea for the cliffs of the Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland.
Max Faulkner of England won that year, a command performance that loosened the stranglehold Bobby Locke of South Africa was placing on the Claret Jug. Historians place the crowds at 7,000 per day, and hopes were high that Royal Portrush would get another Open.
A decade later, Royal Portrush was still waiting.
The civil strife in Northern Ireland in the 1960s had helped keep away the Open. And later, Royal Portrush was deemed too small by organizers to handle the infrastructure required of a modern Open.
“If you’d have asked me 10, 15 years ago, would we ever have the Open Championship,” Darren Clarke, who won the British Open in 2011, said a month ago, “I’d have looked at you as if you’d been in the pub for too long.”
This week, after nearly 70 years, Royal Portrush completes a return to the Open spotlight, presenting itself to an audience largely unfamiliar with the striking landscape that places it among the world’s top dozen courses.
Even with such star power as the world No. 1 Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods and the defending champion Francesco Molinari, Royal Portrush might generate the biggest buzz.
“I’m sure it’s going to be an amazing atmosphere,” Molinari said. “It was impressive to see how quickly all the tickets were sold initially.”
With a cap on ticket sales prompted by Royal Portrush’s smaller size, all 190,000 were sold within seven weeks. A new block of tickets sold out in days, and no walk-up tickets are available.
“The whole town is exciting, the whole atmosphere,” said Clarke, who grew up about an hour away from the course. “It’s going to be an incredible week.”
It is a sentiment shared by golf’s other two major champions produced by Northern Ireland: McIlroy and the Portrush native Graeme McDowell.
“I haven’t tried to hide the fact that I’m playing a major championship basically at home,” said McIlroy, who holds the Royal Portrush course record after shooting 61 as a 16-year-old. “I didn’t know if I’d ever have an opportunity to do that.”
[Read more on how McIlroy made a name for himself at Royal Portrush.]
Royal Portrush will not have to wait so long for another Open, with a commitment from the R&A organizers to bring two more Opens there by 2040.
The club is along Northern Ireland’s northern coast, a land of heaving terrain and craggy cliffs that overlook white sandy beaches.
Just to the east are the ruins of Dunluce Castle, dating from the 13th century, which was used as the Castle Greyjoy in “Game of Thrones.”
The club dates from 1888, offering a new pastime to visitors in the resort town, and was given its royal designation four years later. Tom Morris, a four-time British Open winner commonly known as Old Tom Morris to differentiate him from his son, designed the original layout.
The Irish Amateur Open played its first edition at Royal Portrush in 1892, and the first professional event on Irish soil came along three years later.
In 1929, the English golf course architect Harry Colt overhauled Royal Portrush, routing the new Dunluce Links closer to the sea. As Britain emerged from World War II, Royal Portrush was asked to host the Open in 1951.
Faulkner built a six-stroke lead through three rounds of that tournament, aided by a bold play at No. 16 in the third round. With a wayward drive leaving his ball against some steps straddling a barbed-wire fence, he hit a 4-wood that eventually took a hard right turn and bounded onto the green to save par.
“That’s the greatest shot I’ve ever seen,” Frank Stranahan, his playing partner, said afterward.
Faulkner cruised home to win by two over Antonio Cerdá of Argentina.
Among those smitten by the course was Bernard Darwin, a golf writer who described Colt’s creation in The Times of London as “a monument more enduring than brass.”
“Altogether I find it hard to imagine a more admirable test of golf,” Darwin said.
The call to host another Open never came, even as Royal Lytham and Royal Birkdale each held three editions over the next 15 years, and St. Andrews was the site for four. Royal Portrush did hold the 1960 Amateur Championship and the Irish Amateur in 1952 and ’57.
“In the 1980s and early 1990s, nobody wanted to come to Northern Ireland, let alone to play golf,” Wilma Erskine, the club’s secretary for 35 years, told the Open’s website. “We were struggling a bit.”
The R&A awarded the British Amateur to Royal Portrush in 1993. The Senior Open followed two years later, won by Brian Barnes, Faulkner’s son-in-law.
The Irish Open came in 2012, setting a European Tour attendance record of 112,000. Nonetheless, R&A officials still wondered if Royal Portrush was too small to handle a British Open.
The R&A felt that the 18th hole was hemmed in by the clubhouse, allowing no room for the grand seating that creates an amphitheater around the Open’s final hole. Corporate hospitality had no room to build. Local infrastructure was inadequate.
“There would be much work to do for an Open to go to Portrush,” Peter Dawson, then the R&A’s chief executive, said at that Irish Open.
Clarke was not taking that for an answer. Along with McDowell and McIlroy, they kept the quest in front of Dawson and others.
“I’d be speaking to him,” Clarke said, “and would just subtly slip it in all the time and tell him, ‘It’s good enough, it’s good enough.’ And he listened.”
With commitments from the club and local government to improve the infrastructure, including a change that would incorporate two holes from Royal Portrush’s second course, the R&A awarded the club the 2019 Open.
The 17th and 18th holes have been eliminated in the Open configuration, with two new holes inserted late into the front nine. One is the 590-yard seventh hole, with an elevated tee that forces golfers to choose whether they want to take on the huge Big Nellie bunker guarding the right.
No. 8 is the other new hole; the original seventh hole will be No. 9, and so on. Royal Portrush’s most famous hole — the 230-yard, uphill par-3 known as Calamity Corner — will now play as the 16th, followed by the potentially drivable par 4 No. 17.
“It’s an accuracy golf course tee to green,” McDowell said. “Even with the slight lack of rough, it’s still penal if you miss it in the wrong places off the tee.”
Clarke suggested golfers that would quickly have to figure the best landing areas off the tee, some of which won’t require the big stick.
“If they’re trying to go with driver everywhere,” he said, “they’ll probably only wear half the clothes that they brought with them.”
Translation: They will likely miss the cut.
“I think the guys are going to absolutely love it because a lot of them will never have played there before,” Clarke said. “For all the people who are lucky enough to go, it’s going to be a week that they’ll remember.”