Posted on Wednesday 6 March 2019 by Ulster Business

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With just 19 weeks until Northern Ireland hosts the biggest sporting event in its history, John Mulgrew speaks to the bosses tasked with organising the legendary Open Championship

We’ve come a long way in just a short few years. Despite its huge golfing credentials, especially in the modern game, it had been more than 70 years since Northern Ireland played host to the Irish Open.

That all changed in 2012, when it returned north to Royal Portrush. And that, buoyed on a refreshed and renewed interest in both the tournament, and the sport itself.

Now, in 19 weeks, that same links course will see more than 200,000 people flock to arguably the world’s greatest golf tournament and the largest sporting event ever hosted on these shores – The Open – transforming a small Co Antrim town for a handful of summer days.

“There is a buzz with everyone at the R&A,” Johnnie Cole-Hamilton tells Ulster Business. He’s executive director of championships at the R&A – the ruling authority of golf throughout the world, aside from areas such as the US, and organisation responsible for organising The Open.

“This will be my 20th Open Championship, and one reason I continue to be involved is that it’s a challenge every time.”

It will see Irish golfing greats, including Open winners Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell (hopefully) and Padraig Harrington – among others – join the biggest name in sport, Tiger Woods.

“One of big drivers to returning to Royal Portrush was the success of the Northern Irish and Irish golfers. They have raised the profile of golf immeasurably.

“We are absolutely delighted with the response so far – 20% of tickets sold in 48 hours, and sold out within a record-breaking eight weeks.”

Johnnie says the decision to choose Portrush, bringing it back to the course after a 67 year hiatus, was the correct one – buoyed by the support from the community, agencies and organisations. The 148th Open will be held at Royal Portrush from July 18-21.

“In my career, we had a similar scenario, returning to Liverpool for the first time in 50 years, and we had a very similar response. It returned in 2014, and now Royal Liverpool is firmly on the rota, and I hope that Royal Portrush is similar.”

Of course, aside from the golf, both the short-term and long-term economic benefits will trickle down and benefit, not on the surrounding areas, but prop Northern Ireland up on yet another global platform.

According to Tourism NI chief executive John McGrillen that longer-term benefit could be worth up to £80m for the wider economy.

“There will be 192,000 tickets sold for championship days, and 56% of those sold to people out of state, outside Northern Ireland,” he tells Ulster Business.

“It allows us to present an extremely positive image for Northern Ireland, and into key markets across the globe. We will never have experienced the opportunity to provide such a positive image of Northern Ireland. Despite what we might think, there are perception issues.

“Northern Ireland has a normalised society and some of the most dramatic golf courses, scenery and landscape to see.

“More specifically, the fact that the Open will have been here, as one of the world’s top golf courses, will drive up the amount of spend, especially from golf tourism.”

That alone makes up around 8% of Northern Ireland’s tourism intake. John says he wants that to grow to £50m by 2020. He says golfing visitors spend around four times that of an average tourist.

Johnnie says all signs so far suggest that the Open in Portrush is “going to be an enormous” success. But the process hasn’t come without its challenges – namely the
Irish Sea.

“This is the first Open Championship we have hosted in my time, in which we have a body of water between our base and our contractor base. There’s getting things across water, and an enormous amount of work on the golf course – new holes, a new road system around the course and a tunnel for the players from one of the new greens to tee. You can’t do that without support from the golf club

“The members have been hugely supportive, turning the course upside down, but maintaining integrity and enhancing (it).”

He said, along with the blue light services, local authorities, council and tourism groups, the community in and around Portrush “understands that this will bring great benefits” to the area and Northern Ireland as a whole. “You can overcome difficulties with support,” he says.

“Royal Portrush has never had more than 200,000 people drive to it, or get the train to it, at the same time. It’s a challenge to make sure we deliver a wonderful Open Championship and a spectator experience.”

John McGrillen says the triumph in landing the Open itself was down to the success of the Irish Open in the last few years. “You had more than 40,000 people turning out at Portrush… visitor numbers had been dwindling.

“That allows us to demonstrate that the course can deal with that many people. Everyone (organisations) worked very well, collectively, and that gave confidence to the R&A that we would have the capacity to deliver it. The risk factors they had were eliminated because of the success of the Irish Open, and that was very critical.”

As for boosting many of the hundreds of businesses in and around the area, John said: “It will do, as it’s showing off Northern Ireland… we have seen a big boost in the number of Americans playing golf. We don’t have to wait until after the event.

“The visibility the Irish Open has given us. We have Royal County Down, Royal Portrush and Portstewart – that’s increased significantly. It’s not just those courses which are benefiting – it’s being spread. People will typically stay in Belfast and travel around.”

For John, the best outcome is, of course, an Irish winner. Oh, and clear skies. “A local winner would be phenomenal. It would be fantastic to see Rory win, or Tiger Woods.

“If Tiger Woods won the Open in Portrush, that would remain in peoples’ memories forever. While we would love Rory or other locals to win, I would not be disappointed in Tiger winning it.”

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