The 2019 Open: R&A was quickly persuaded over Portrush says ex-chief Peter Dawson

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The Road to the Open

Sunday 14 July
BBC One Northern Ireland, 20:00 BST; Will be available on the BBC iPlayer

Former R&A chief executive Peter Dawson has said the golf governing body needed little persuasion to bring The Open Championship back to Northern Ireland.

Speaking in a BBC NI film which will be shown on Sunday, Dawson said negotiations with the Northern Ireland Executive in 2014 were “quite short”.

“There was no argument about whether we were going to bring The Open,” he said.

“Northern Ireland wanted the championship clearly just as much as we wanted to bring it.”

The Road to the Open, which will be on BBC One Northern Ireland on Sunday at 20:00 BST, will be broadcast four days before the golf major makes its return to the province and Royal Portrush after a 68-year gap.

The programme, narrated by renowned Northern Ireland actor James Nesbitt, charts the behind-the-scenes work which has gone on over the last five years as part of a multi-million pound makeover of both the venue and town of Portrush, in preparation for next week’s championship.

The scene around the 18th green on the final day of the 2012 Irish Open

2012 Irish Open the ‘catalyst’ says Dawson

Dawson says the ending of the Northern Ireland Troubles, followed by the Belfast Agreement in 1998, opened the door to the R&A once again considering Royal Portrush as an Open venue.

“Portrush had always been on the R&A’s radar as a wonderful golf course,” added the ex-R&A chief.

“Time went by and for all sorts of obvious reasons, it was difficult to bring big events to Northern Ireland.

“The political and security climate was a big part of that for a long time. Even when those things improve, it takes a while to turn things around but those times have passed thank goodness.”

Dawson admits the success of Irish players in majors over the last 12 years – kickstarted by Padraig Harrington’s successive Open titles in 2007 and 2008 – did help Portrush’s cause but says the successful staging of the Irish Open at the venue in 2012 was key.

By that stage, Northern Ireland golf was in a period of unparalleled success in his history with Graeme McDowell having landed the US Open in 2010 before the 2011 major victories by Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke at the US Open and Open Championship.

“There was a wonderful Irish Open in 2012 which I think was the real catalyst for it happening. The Irish golf fans turned out in huge numbers and made it a huge success,” recalls Dawson, who stood down as R&A chief in 2015.

McIlroy recalls firing Portrush 61 aged 16

Royal Portrush secretary manager Wilma Erskine, who features prominently in Sunday’s hour-long programme, admits the crowd numbers at the 2012 event which broke the existing European Tour record, even took club officials by surprise.

“It shocked us all,” said Erskine, who will retire after 35 years in the Royal Portrush role following the championship.

“We had the same number of people on the final day at the Irish Open as they had on the last day in The Open at Royal Lytham that year.

“The R&A also sent some mystery shoppers to see how it was set up and they were very impressed to see what we had managed to do in such a short space of time.”

Wilma Erskine will be stepping down as Royal Portrush secretary manager after 35 years in the role later this year

Sunday’s programme includes contributions from local heroes, McDowell, Clarke and McIlroy, who recalls firing an astonishing 61 as a 16-year-old on the Dunluce links at the North of Ireland Amateur Championship in 2005.

“I remember every shot of that round,” says McIlroy.

“It was the first time I’d ever experienced getting in the zone or whatever you want to call it. I just looked at the target and swung and the ball went there.”

Local fans will be hoping that McIlroy can end a five-year winless run in majors by emerging victorious on home soil but Erskine is convinced that the championship will be a triumph irrespective of who lifts the trophy.

“We’re all going to make it the biggest, the best and the most successful (Open) ever and I think the R&A will want to return here quite soon.”

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