An Irish Open at Portrush will boost Open return hopes

Inside Clarke's Open celebrations

Northern Ireland tourism minister Arlene Foster says a successful staging of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush will boost the chances of the Open Championship returning to the NI venue.

Darren Clarke's Open win at Sandwich has led to renewed hopes that the major event could return to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

"We're looking at bringing the Irish Open to Portrush," said the minister.

"That is very much a probability in the near to medium future."

The minister added:"That will showcase Royal Portrush in a way which will make it easier for us to get the British Open here.

"Once the R&A (Royal & Ancient) can see that we can organise an event like the Irish Open, they will be looking at us in a more meaningful way.

"That's what we need to do. To stage - if you like - some of the intermediate championships before we go for the big one.

"We're very much working on that. We've been in negotiations with Royal Portrush. I'm here today (at Portrush) having a chat with them again and I will continue to do that."

The minister spoke of her belief that infrastructural and logistical difficulties could be overcome to ensure that the Open will one day make a return to Northern Ireland.

"We don't have to base everybody in and around Portrush.

"If you look at Royal St George's, they have been busing people from all around the south of England.

"Northern Ireland is a pretty small place. I think we can very much accommodate the British Open in the future."

Royal and Ancient Club chief executive Peter Dawson admitted on Monday that Northern Ireland's three recent major wins had given fresh momentum to the calls for the Open to return to Portrush for the first time since Max Faulkner's 1951 triumph.

Clarke's memorable three-stroke win on Sunday saw the popular 42-year-old join Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell as players from Northern Ireland who have won Majors in the last 13 months.

"We're all very aware of the fact that three winners from Northern Ireland increases the interest level in this," said Dawson.

R&A officials have previously questioned whether Portrush has sufficient infrastructure to cope with the tournament, which attracts tens of thousands of fans over several days.

Dawson was unable to pinpoint Portrush's exact shortcomings when asked to do so on Monday.

"I don't know yet until we've had another look at it, to be honest," added the R&A chief.

"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.

"I don't want to start a hare running on this, other than we are going to take a closer look."

Dawson also added that the political situation in Northern Ireland could potentially be an issue after violence erupted in the region last week.

"Things seem to be getting an awful lot better, but I have been reading of some difficulty in the papers lately," added Dawson.

"I have no idea how exaggerated or otherwise those are. It'll be one of the things we take into account, although I don't think it's right at the forefront of our mind."

Unsurprisingly, Clarke would be keen to see the Open staged in Portrush for sentimental reasons but was realistic about the challenges which would be posed by a decision to hold the tournament there.

"At the moment they (the R&A) can't see a way of having it there, so it's very tough," he said.

"I wish there was some way around it and I hope at some stage in the future they will find a way around it because the golf course is every bit as good as any of the Open venues.

"It's good enough to be in the Open rota. Hopefully they will figure a way around the logistics if they possibly can."

Portrush's hosting of the Open 60 years ago was one the only time golf's oldest and most revered tournament was held outside of the British mainland.

Since then, the tournament has been shared between top links courses in England and Scotland with the current rotation involving nine layouts.

Currently, the schedule for the Open sees it return to Royal Lytham in 2012 before going to Muirfield in Scotland in 2013 and then onto Hoylake's Royal Liverpool in 2014.

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