Northern Ireland

The Open 2019 diary: A 'watershed' moment for Northern Ireland

Shane Lowry of Ireland with the claret jug trophy as he celebrates winning the British Open Golf Championship at Royal Portrush, Northern Ireland, 21 July 2019. Image copyright EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA
Image caption Shane Lowry with the claret jug trophy as he celebrates his win

It ended as it began - with a packed grandstand and a fairway lined with fans roaring their approval for not just the winner but for everything that brought them here.

Much has been written about the transformative power of this Open, and in truth only time will test the veracity of those words.

But as the rain fell on a dramatic final day at Royal Portrush not for a moment was the optimism which has spread like a contagion in the past seven days, remotely dampened.

Rory McIlroy's early departure may have been a bitter pill to swallow but what Shane Lowry delivered on Saturday and Sunday was the sweetest of redemption songs for Irish golf.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Umbrellas up to watch Shane Lowry during the final round

The fact Northern Ireland hosted arguably the most successful Open ever says a lot about where it has come.

That a bearded GAA fan from Offaly was embraced by every soul on a wild and windy Dunluce links perhaps suggests an even greater shift.

On Monday, Lowry will wake up and begin to realise he has now joined the pantheon on Irish sporting heroes.

Where does this past week leave Northern Ireland?

Tourism NI chief John McGrillen is in no doubt about just how much it means.

"This is a watershed moment for Northern Ireland.

"Since the Good Friday Agreement we've probably struggled to shake off impressions of the place that have been built up over four decades.

"But the fact the R&A have come here and had the confidence to bring a world class event, and the coverage that has had, will change people's perceptions of this place forever.

"This has galvanised the whole of Northern Ireland but a local winner, regardless of what side of the border he comes from, has been very well received."

Image copyright Reuters

The doyen of Irish golf writers, Dermot Gilleece, who has covered 40 consecutive Opens, says the reception for Lowry was truly remarkable.

The Irish Independent's golf correspondent said: "I'm from Dublin and I was deeply moved by what I witnessed.

"He got the sort of reception I thought was only reserved for the likes of Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell or Rory McIlroy.

"I know it's a bit of a cliche but sport does transcend boundaries.

"If you look at the rugby team there is evidence that it does. I was deeply moved by it, almost to the point of tears."

Chief of Ireland's Incoming Tour Operators Association Ruth Andrews shares the view that the past week has changed perceptions of Northern Ireland forever.

She said: "The legacy of this will go on for many years to come and it's not just financial. What this does for sending out a positive message about Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole is immense.

"We have come such a long way in the past 20 years and this epitomises that."

Will NI now reap a rich financial reward?

It had been suggested that the Open's return to these shores would be worth £80m to Northern Ireland, but John McGrillen now believes that may have to be revised.

"We came up with that figure when putting together a bid for money from the government.

"I would say it's more likely to be £100m plus. If we look as far as 2030 it could exceed that.

"There are 600 million households getting access to this. That in itself is worth millions of dollars.

"If we up the value of tourism by £10m a year over the next 10 years, which I've no doubt we will, then there's £100 million."

Image caption Simon Alliss, championship director for the Irish Open

He believes that to maximise the tourists who will now come, Northern Ireland needs more four and five star hotels.

Plans for a £30m hotel and spa close to the Dunluce links have now been revised and rooms across the country have been booked out this week.

"Every part of Northern Ireland will benefit, there is nowhere that will not be touched by this event," says John McGrillen.

"The whole of Ireland, north and south, will reap the rewards," adds Ruth Andrews.

How has Portrush coped with hosting the Open?

Simon Alliss, championship director for the Irish Open has been blown away.

"Just look at the scale and the crowds.

Image copyright PA/David Davies
Image caption White Rocks beach in Portrush

"The fans here are the best and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council have obviously invested heavily in the regeneration of Portrush and it really shows. Everything looks amazing."

Dermot Gilleece too believes this is the smoothest-running Open of the many he has been at.

"The traffic management has been second to none and it's those sort of niggles that can build or destroy reputations and that's a huge plus for Portrush.

"The volunteers have been fantastic and every one of them has given of their time for nothing and done so with a smile on their face."

What now for golf in NI?

Next on the agenda is the ISPS Handa World Invitational at Galgorm Golf Club, starting on 15 August and another Irish Open seems more of a when than an if.

Christopher Brooke, who heads the team at Galgorm, believes an event featuring male and female professionals shows that the days of golf being populated by middle-aged men in Pringle sweaters are long gone.

Image caption Ruth Andrews says NI has come a long way

"We've got six of the top women playing including Solheim Cup captain Catriona Matthew and local star Stephanie Meadows.

"There are players from 40 different nations.

"The whole image of golf has changed. It is a sport for everybody to embrace. It is not for the few."

On the Irish Open, Simon Alliss, son of legendary commentator Peter, said: "Two years ago we came here to Portstewart and we are discussing when we return to Northern Ireland.

"There is definitely the appetite and the will. I hope we'll be back in the next couple of years."

But the last word should go to Lowry, a man who on Thursday carried with him the hopes of half of Ireland but by Sunday had the whole island in his corner.

"I've played in eight Opens and this is the best one I have ever played in, the way it was run, the golf course, everything. I'd be very surprised if it's not back here in the next 10 years.

"To win at home and celebrate with local people is obviously very nice."

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