News & Opinion

Northern Irish trail to peace leads to Open

When the British Open commences Thursday at Royal Portrush, nearly an entire tiny nation will take a unified cleansing breath. The whole of Northern Ireland, some 1.9 million hearty and sometimes weary souls, will enthusiastically welcome the rest of the world to what will be one of the biggest sporting events on the planet.

Such a thing wouldn’t have been remotely possible or feasible 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, if you ask those in charge. Northern Ireland boasts a couple of the best golf courses in the world, one of which is Royal Portrush. The nation’s golfers long hoped for the Open to return to Portrush for the first time since 1951.

But the violence that rocked Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998 not only kept the R&A just past arm’s length, but tourists stayed away, as well, preferring to visit the Republic of Ireland to the south and its world-renowned courses. “The problem was that, in the 1980s and early 1990s, nobody wanted to come to Northern Ireland, let alone to play golf,” Wilma Erskine, who has been the club secretary at Portrush for 35 years, said in a story posted by the R&A.

Northern Ireland has a complicated history. The Irish isle was divided in 1921 by politics, allegiance and religion. The north is under British rule, part of the United Kingdom, along with England, Scotland and Wales. The Republic of Ireland has its own government and is independent of the U.K.

Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority rose up against the majority Protestants and a perceived oppression to fight for a unified, independent Ireland. The Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary organization, used bombs and intimidation against the government and the Northern Irish people in an attempt to force the British out of Northern Ireland. Loyalist paramilitary groups challenged the IRA, and eventually the British army was called in to restore order.

The war between factions was known in Northern Ireland as “The Troubles.” In 30 years, about 3,600 were killed and numerous buildings were bombed all over the country. Even some golf courses in the north were bombed. Today, most golf clubs in Northern Ireland are hidden behind security gates that can be accessed only by a code.

Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open champion, a native of Northern Ireland and a resident of Portrush, was touched by The Troubles.

“The only job I ever had was in a bar called The Inn on the Park in Dungannon [Clarke’s hometown],” Clarke told John Huggan of Golf Digest in 2003. “One night [in 1978], I was setting up the bar. We got a phone call at 9:30 telling everyone to get out. So, we did.

“The bomb went off at 10. The place was flattened; nothing but rubble left. It was a big place, too. The bomb was five yards away from me from 5 onward. If it had gone off earlier, I wouldn’t be here.”

The Troubles officially ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which at best left an uneasy peace throughout Northern Ireland. One of the only unifying aspects between the two countries is golf. All male Irish golfers play under the flag of the Golfing Union of Ireland, and female golfers are part of the Ladies’ Golf Union.

The North of Ireland is one of the five biggest amateur events in the two Irelands and was played this year at Portstewart. Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell – major champions all – are natives of Northern Ireland and played amateur golf for a unified Irish team.

But having a British Open in Northern Ireland was little more than wishful thinking. The road to the Open started with very small steps. The R&A staged the British Amateur at Royal Portrush in 1993. It had not been in Northern Ireland since 1960.

The Senior Open landed at Portrush in 1995 and was held there through 1999 and again in 2004. Then Erskine and the club pursued the Irish Open, and it was played at Portrush in 2012. “We got huge crowds, and this was in the background while we were making our case to the R&A, so they sent a couple of guys open to see if we could have the infrastructure to host an Open,” said Erskine, who will retire as Portrush club secretary after the Open.

“We did not have many stands, but it is all about car parking and getting people around the course. We managed very well, and the European Tour stopped selling tickets a week in advance. We were expecting 15,000 on the four days but we got that on the pro-am day.”

Peter Dawson, who was chief executive of the R&A in 2012, entered into negotiations to bring the Open to Portrush. But it was difficult to ignore the past.

"Time went by, and for all sorts of obvious reasons, it was difficult to bring big events to Northern Ireland,” Dawson told the BBC. "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."

When the first ball is in the air on Thursday morning, it will be the beginning of a landmark Open and the result of a confluence of a number of events over a number of years. Peace and stability are not the least of the results. But count vindication high among them. And it’s there for all the world to witness.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf