R&A consider Northern Ireland as Open hosts

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The Independent Online

Four years after effectively ruling it out, championship organisers the Royal and Ancient have vowed to re-examine the possibility of Northern Ireland staging the Open.

The US Open victories of Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy have prompted calls for the Open to return to their home country for the first time since Max Faulkner triumphed at Royal Portrush in 1951.

And while R&A chief executive Peter Dawson stressed such a move was not "in any way imminent", he did concede the possibility would be revisited.

"Obviously there's much emotion about Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy's victories and why don't we go back to Northern Ireland and perhaps Portrush in particular, and I understand that," Dawson said in the R&A's pre-tournament press conference at Royal St George's.

"You can't, however, base where you hold The Open on where players come from. I think that should be obvious to anyone.

"Portrush is a terrific golf course (and) may well be strong enough for an Open, but as we all know, there are other issues of infrastructure, accommodation, roads, what would the commercial success or otherwise of the championship be, that need consideration.

"(We are) not ruling it out by any stretch of the imagination, but it would have to meet all those criteria, and I don't think it's something that's going to be in any way imminent, but it's certainly something we'll have a look at again in view of the success of the golfers from that part of the world."

In 2007, then R&A director of championships David Hill admitted it would require an "amazing amount" of investment to consider taking the Open back to Portrush.

"Royal Portrush is a fantastic course and I looked at it in great detail about five or six years ago," Hill said at the time. "It would be a fantastic venue, but only for about 15,000 people a day.

"The Seniors Open was at Portrush and with 6,000 people we were struggling - it's jammed with normal holidaymakers as it is."

Other Open venues have overcome infrastructure problems to get back on the Open roster - before 2006, Hoylake's last Open was in 1967 - and Dawson added: "We're obviously not immune to what people are saying, and it clearly would have a lot of local support.

"Whether that, whilst being very intense, would be sufficient in quantity to make it a successful championship is something that would need to be judged.

"At Hoylake it was actually lack of land at the golf course to accommodate everything we would need to put on the golf course. At Royal Portrush there is the second course, so there's not a land issue on site. It's more road access, quantity of hotels, what would the level of corporate support be, what would the crowd size be, things of that nature."

Strong winds during yesterday's practice rounds saw the majority of players struggling to reach the fairway on the par-five seventh, while Phil Mickelson and Luke Donald both came up short of the green on the par-three 11th, despite hitting drivers.

And Dawson admitted several tees might need to be moved forward if similar conditions persist throughout the week.

"Depending on wind conditions, the back tee at seven was always going to be challenging," he added. "It's about 270, 280 yards to the top of the crest there and 220-ish to the fairway.

"We made the players aware at the start of the week that some tees may be moved up, and they were invited to practice off forward tees if they so wished.

"If the wind turns around, it's a completely different story, but I think players should be able to reach the fairway and reach the par threes frankly."

The set up of the course came in for criticism when the Open was last staged here in 2003, when overly penal rough and the severely undulating fairways sent scores and player complaints soaring.

Lessons appear to have been learnt however, with Dawson adding: "The amount of rough we have out there is pretty close to what we would like I'll have to say.

"We don't like rough to hack out of, but all the players say it's enough to give them issues with flier lies and so on. It's not as thick as it might have been, but it's good playing conditions. We're happy with it."

Looking further ahead, Dawson revealed that the format for golf's return to the Olympics in 2016, could yet be changed when discussions are held with the International Olympic Committee after next year's London Games.

"The format of the event remains as per the Olympic bid, which was 60 men in one competition, 60 women in another, 72-hole stroke play event," Dawson added. "But there are a number of thoughts that perhaps the format is a little stereotyped.

"Could we get a team competition in amongst it, as well, is really what's on my mind more than anything else."