2019 Open: R&A 'staggered' by Open ticket sales for Portrush

Francesco Molinari won the 2018 Open at Carnoustie
Francesco Molinari will be defending the championship he won at Carnoustie in 2018

The organisers of the Open Championship say they are staggered by the level of interest in its historic return to Northern Ireland.

The Royal and Ancient described the demand for tickets to see July's sporting showpiece at Royal Portrush Golf Club as "phenomenal".

The event, returning to the Northern Ireland course for the first time in almost 70 years, sold out last August.

The only tickets still available are for practice days.

The Open was last staged at Royal Portrush in 1951, with Max Faulkner winning a first prize of £300.

On a winter planning visit to the course, Mike Woodcock, director of corporate communications at the R&A, said the pace at which tickets were snapped up took them by surprise.

"We were confident there would be huge excitement here, but I think even we were staggered by just how much there was when the championship days sold out in two months," he said.

"It was phenomenal really and speaks volumes about the enthusiasm, not only for golf but for sport here in Northern Ireland.

"The Open is one of the world's greatest sporting events, the world's greatest golfers will be playing here, and I think it's just fantastic."

2011 Open winner Darren Clarke
Royal Portrush is the home club of 2011 Open winner Darren Clarke

Due to the anticipated large crowds, this year's Open was the first ever all-ticketed event in the major tournament's history - 190,000 people are expected through the gates.

The R&A has predicted that the tournament will deliver an £80 million boost to the local economy, through combined direct spend and the value of the media exposure of the destination.

Aine Kearney, from Tourism NI, is co-ordinating efforts to deliver Northern Ireland's first Open in seven decades.

"This will be broadcast to 80 million homes across 150 countries around the world," she said.

"And whilst the focus of the attention will be on the golf, what they will also get to see is the absolutely amazing landscape as well as a lot of the stories of the experiences that the players are having, the media are having - you can't buy that level of exposure."

Ms Kearney insisted the political impasse at Stormont, which has seen Northern Ireland without devolved government for two years, has not disrupted the plans.