I’ve been going to The Open since I was 12, my first was Turnberry in 1986. My Dad was entertaining clients from the motor trade in the corporate hospitality for the week and I tagged along. He dropped me off at 7am and left to spend the day walking around Turnberry in the pouring rain, absolutely drenched but incredibly happy. The weather was so bad that there was no problem getting a plum seat at the 18th as Greg Norman came down the last on that Sunday afternoon. I was hooked.
Fast forward 33 years and I’ve been to every Open venue since then, both to play and watch. The only one I hadn’t spectated at was Royal St Georges, although it was one of my favourites to play. So when it was announced that The Open was returning to Portrush after all of these years I was keen to make it along to see how the course fared, and how the fans reacted to the greatest of all of golf’s tournaments.
I had big intentions of visiting Portrush before The Open to see how the new holes they had created for the event had bedded in, but before I had anything organised, I received an email that led to a change of plan.
The Open has turned into quite a commercial beast and they are always looking for new ways to make money and drive revenues up. ‘The Open Experience’ is one such way. With this special ticket you get not only the usual, high-class hospitality but also a range of ‘money-can’t-buy’ experiences, which you can buy, if you have the money… They were offering the the chance to play the course the day after The Open, with the pins in the same places and the stands all around. I was suckered.
In my haste to book the trip I had failed miserably to check the family calendar and had a horrible clash with the 40th birthday celebrations of two close friends (not golf fans clearly, having booked a party for Open weekend). Between that and rescheduled Easyjet flights it meant a 5am start from Edinburgh to get to Glasgow airport, finally making it onto the course around lunchtime on the Sunday.
There were about 60 guests in the hospitality by the 1st fairway, most of them had been there for at least one day before and some of them for the whole week. The clientele was mainly American, with a few other nationalities sprinkled in. British voices were fairly thin on the ground.
The package promised behind the scenes experiences, however my late arrival and the R&A’s rather odd decision to push up tee times by an hour meant I got a slightly truncated version. First stop was a trip to the Golf Channel’s studio half way down the 18th fairway. We got there about 30 minutes before the leaders teed off and walked into a rather small, makeshift studio to see Jaime Diaz, Rich Lerner and Brandon Chamblee giving their final thoughts to the American TV audience before the leaders headed out.
It wasn’t as frantic as I had anticipated from watching Aaron Sorkin-eqsue TV dramas. In fact it was incredibly laid back (one of the crew was reading a book!) and it was just like 3 guys having a chat. I thought it was very trusting of them to let in half a dozen complete strangers and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to have 15 minutes of fame with a quick ‘hello Mum’ moment. However, I managed to contain myself and made do with a quick chat and a photograph before heading out to see Lowry and Fleetwood come down the first.
Another really nice part of the package was the reserved seats at the 1st tee and 18th Green. The 1st tee stand was pretty small and people were queuing at the 18th grandstand for several hours to get a seat.
Normally I come to an Open fully equipped for a day’s viewing. Firstly, you need to have a radio with you that doesn’t rely on network coverage (i.e. not a phone based one). Secondly, the periscope I bought from Phil Mickelson’s dad a few years ago is vital if you want to have a clue what’s going on. Unfortunately, today I had neither. I followed Lowry and Fleetwood to the 5th but then the heavens absolutely opened and it turned in to one of the wettest days I’d ever seen on a golf course. So I decided to do something 12 year old me would have thought very strange, and returned to the tent to watch a couple of hours play on the TV and to take advantage of a couple more of the ‘experiences’.
Firstly, there was a trip inside the iconic yellow scoreboard behind the 18th green. We clambered up the ladder and were able to see at first hand the military-style operation run by the pupils of Cranleigh School to ensure that the fans at the 18th are kept up to date. Having seen this board pretty much all my life, it was great to get the chance to view it in this unusual way!
The it was back to the hospitality tent to hear from an ex-major champion talk about the Championship. We had been promised David Duval and Darren Clarke (Watson and Player had been there earlier in the week) but got the slightly less historic Rich Beem instead. While he may not have had the most celebrated career, he was an entertaining speaker and helped set the scene as the leaders headed into the back 9.
By this time Lowry had pretty much wrapped the whole thing up and there was something of a party mood about the place. I had had vague intentions of trying to walk out to the 14th and follow them in, but several tens of thousands of others had had a similar idea and, without my periscope or radio, I wouldn’t have had much idea what was happening, so I headed instead to the 18th. The R&A have put some wifi in various spots on the course and it was pretty good at the 18th so I was able to watch Sky’s coverage while waiting for the final groups.
Much has been made of the atmosphere at Royal Portrush and as Lowry came over the hill from the 17th and swept down the 18th you could sense the massive sea of support carrying him along.
This felt to me much more like the Opens of my youth than those of the last few years. I remember being at St Andrews in 1990 when my hero, Nick Faldo, came down the last. We jumped over the barriers of the 18th fairway and ran fast to get all the way up to the green. It took quite an effort for Faldo to make it through to the green and there was a real sense of euphoria in the crowd.
In recent years the whole affair has become a little more solemn. The marshalls have been more fastidious and the whole thing more regimented. Geoff Shackelford talked about this on the State of the Game Open review. It definitely seemed that everyone was allowed to have more fun in Portrush.
It was a wonderful Open, and while I had only been there for a few hours I could tell that it had been a little bit special. There has been much discussion about when the Open will be back, and whether other courses might be chopped from the rota to accommodate it. I’m not sure whether it is true that the merchandise tent hit its daily sales targets by 10:30am every day, but the queue to get in was huge when I walked past, and no other Open will have ever generated as much in ticket money as this one. That alone would be enough to guarantee a place ahead of some other rota courses but the fans’ exuberance will surely boost its appeal even more. I suspect that the R&A will do nothing too hasty, but without a doubt we will be back sooner rather than later.
I’d had great fun watching, but I couldn’t wait to see what the course was like to play. All through the week there had been tales of thick rough, impossible lies and all kinds of weather to contend with.
I had only been to Portrush once before - 10 years previously on a slightly ridiculous itinerary that took in Lytham, Hoylake and County Down, and far too many bars en route. County Down is ranked a scarcely believable 3rd versus Portrush’s 12 in the Ultimate Top 100 list - but I came away from that trip with a very clear view that Portrush was my favourite by some distance. It suited my game more. County Down’s blind shots and heavy gorse did for me whereas Portrush was accessible and fun.
On the Monday after The Open the course is reserved for the R&A and sponsors and we were pretty much the last out, with a 3:40pm tee time. We were lucky with the conditions as although the wind was up (we started in a 2 or 3 club wind) the sun was shining and there were none of the biblical downpours of the previous day.
I had done a little poll on Twitter to see what people though my stableford score for the 18 holes would be. The average came in at around 23 points and gave me something to aim for!
We were to play off a mixture of tees. Where the tees had been moved up on the last round we were off of the same box and I think the course was playing about 6,700 yards for us. Longer that my normal ‘comfort zone’ of 6,500 but I was happy to go with it in the circumstances!
Our fourball had a rather mixed range of abilities. We had a British student on a golf scholarship in the US playing off +4, another middle aged 12 handicapper like me and a lady from Holland who can’t possibly have had a handicap under 36. 54 would have been pushing it.
We were each supplied with a caddy. Now, I have written before about my aversion to caddies but these ones were very good. Mine was a schoolboy from Belfast who spent his summer holidays in Portrush mainly caddying for rich Americans. He proffered no swing tips the whole way around, no judgement was offered when I decided to hit 2 wedges on occasion from 200ish yards - he just seemed keen that I had a good day. The only thing that I questioned was his future career choice. To be aspiring to a career in corporate banking at the age of 16 was slightly depressing I felt, but good luck to him!
I wasn’t as nervous on the first tee as I had expected. I think I was helped by the fact that our expectations were all pretty low having seen so many of the pros struggle over the last few days. My first shot was a little scuffy left, but well away from the OB that had caused McIlroy such heartache (internal OB is one of my pet peeves but that one really is quite a long way to the left!). My second pulled up short of the bunkers but a pitch to 10 foot and a good read from my caddy got me away with a par. Happy days!
Don’t worry, I won’t go through a blow by blow of every shot out there but here are some general observations and thoughts:
Firstly, the course was a lot more playable than I had expected. While some of the fairways were pinched in, I didn’t feel particularly intimidated off the tee and the trouble tended to come the closer you got to the greens which meant there were plenty of options for a mid handicapper like me.
However, the rough was definitely a major factor. It has been a wet summer all over the UK. Around Gullane, where I live, the rough has been at higher levels than we have seen for years. This Portrush rough was really brutal though and if you were in some of the thick stuff then the chances of finding the ball were low. If you did find it, getting it out was even tougher. I asked the caddies whether the course was playing particularly different from normal and they said that the rough was fairly typical of all courses in the area given the rain.
As for the greens, I suspect they hadn’t been cut that morning but they were an absolute pleasure to play on - not too fast and just enough movement to make you think a little. We holed quite a few feet between us and it confirmed the point that you don’t need to have greens that play like a snooker table to enjoy the experience.
The fairway bunkers caused me more trouble than pretty much anything else on the course. On several occasions I hit what I thought was a pretty good tee shot just to see it gobbled up by the sand. Then, in my efforts to escape, I found myself clipping the top of the bunker and the ball returning to my feet.
Playing with the stands up was pretty special, but it was amazing to think that just 24 hours previously there had been 40,000 people clambering all over the course. We didn’t have a single lie between us all day that was impacted by the stands or traffic from the previous week.
This course was a delight to play. Even in these conditions and set-up it isn’t a brute like Carnoustie or a slog like Lytham. This was lovely links golf in a magical setting. The first third sets the bar incredibly high and with the wind behind these are holes to make your score on. The short, par 4 5th was a particular delight. This hole is one of my favourite anywhere in the world - it gives both a test of nerve and a spectacular view.
It would be fair to say though that I was lulled into a bit of a false sense of security over these opening holes. I was scoring pretty well and the course wasn’t proving too difficult. At the 6th we turned into the wind - still 3 clubs probably - and things were to take a turn.
The 7th and the 8th are two new holes and they fit seamlessly into the routing. 7 is a par 5 on a huge scale. The dunes are massive - the hole would fit very well into Trump International at Aberdeen. While the pros were able to get onto this 592 yard monster in 2, this is where the difference between pro and amateur starts to bite. It took my quite a while to wind my way up and I only managed to scrape a point.
9, 10 and 11 ruined my ambitions of getting to 30 points as the course really showed its teeth but I was keen to make sure that they didn’t spoil my day. A friend of mine recalls a time when he was getting mad on the course and his playing partner turned to him and said ‘why are you getting angry, you’re not good enough to get angry’. Wise words I always try to remember when scoring isn’t going my way!
I got through my bad patch with spirits still high and the holes from 13 in were just one delight after another. We played off the slightly forward Sunday tees at the par 3 16th, Calamity Corner, and even then I managed to come up short which is clearly not the place to be. In hindsight I should have smashed a driver into the stands at the back in a real pro move!
While I didn’t make it down the slope at the par 4 17th it was a really lovely hole to play and then the 18th was made all the more special with the light splitting the stands as we came down the hole.
I ended up coming home with 24 points which wasn’t devastating. Had we been off the back tees all the way round though I am sure 20 would have proved elusive. I wasn’t striking it brilliantly and the combination of bunkers and rough cost me dearly but this is a course you can score on if you plot your way around. There are more elevated greens here than you will find on many Scottish links so scoring can be a bit tougher if you’re not dialled in with your approach shots but if you have a bit of a short game you’ll be OK.
I can only imagine how hard I would find it to score on a US Open course or Augusta the day after championship play had finished. This Open course doesn’t need to be tricked up too horribly for the pros to find it a challenge, but yet is still playable for mere mortals
It was a great thrill to play the course set up like this and the quality really shone through. While I had always rated it highly the new holes and tweaks made mean that I have bumped it up to a 19 now in my scoring system - putting it into a truly elite bracket.
The Open Experience made the trip a bit extra special, but getting a game at Portrush under normal circumstances is pretty straightforward. You can play it 7 days a week, with fewer restrictions than most Open rota courses. Green fees of £90 in the winter and £220 in the summer make it great value.
Bring on Royal St Georges in 2020!