The countdown to the world’s greatest golf tournament taking place in Northern Ireland has officially begun.
The spectacular Royal Portrush course on the scenic Causeway coast last staged the Open in 1951 – the only time it has been played outside England and Scotland.
It could now return to Portrush as early as 2019.
However, tournament organisers the R&A (Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews) said the date would only be confirmed once the necessary approvals to undertake course changes were obtained.
Chief executive Peter Dawson said: “There are planned course enhancements and infrastructure development which will require ratification by the club’s members and by the planning authorities and so we will not be able to announce a date for the first event until these permissions are in place.
“2019 is the earliest it can be but it may be that we have to wait a year or two longer than that,” Mr Dawson said.
Golf fans in Northern Ireland have long held an aspiration that one day the tournament would return but only in recent years had that ambition started to look realistic.
Four major championship victories by local superstars Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke between 2010 and 2012 added a real impetus to the campaign to bring the championship back, with all three lobbying on behalf of the course.
Mr Dawson said it was exciting to be talking about a Portrush tournament.
“We couldn’t be more excited about bringing the Open back here to one of the world’s truly great links courses and we have every confidence that Royal Portrush will prove to be an excellent venue in absolutely every way,” he said.
“Golf enjoys passionate support in Northern Ireland and indeed throughout Ireland and we expect there will be huge interest in the championship from the many thousands of golf fans here.”
Joining Stormont’s political leaders at the clubhouse at Royal Portrush, Mr Dawson added: “This a wonderful golf course which will challenge the world’s top golfers.
“It’s been more than 60 years since the Open was played here and it’s been too long and we are very, very excited about it coming back.”
The R&A chief executive joked that the “badgering” by the famous trio was not the deciding factor.
“I don’t think their badgering had any great influence, although we had the craic, as they say, about it several times,” he said.
“I think their performances, however, on the golf course and the staging of the Irish Open here was something of an eye opener in terms of just the strength of the fan base for golf in Northern Ireland and Ireland altogether.
“I think that certainly was part of it, as well as the wonderful golf course here and the great support and welcome we have been receiving from the Northern Ireland Executive and the club. So it’s a lot of things coming together.”
While the R&A initially expressed concerns on whether Portrush had the infrastructure required to stage a major championship, those doubts were largely set aside by the successful staging of the Irish Open. Massive crowds that braved the rain and descended on Portrush from across Northern Ireland and beyond two years ago made it the first ever sell-out of a regular European Tour event.
During past decades of violence in Northern Ireland hosting the Open would have been unthinkable. While the peace process has transformed the region, sporadic public disorder still has a tendency to flare in mid-July, the week before the Open slot, as a result of loyal order parading disputes around the traditional Twelfth of July commemorations.
In recent years trouble has been confined to certain small parts of Belfast – more than 50 miles from Portrush.
Mr Dawson said the R&A would not have decided to return to Portrush if it had any security concerns.
“The history here has caused some reputational damage here over time, I think everyone knows that, but we are very happy that that’s in the past,” he said.
“Like every other Open venue we work closely with the police, we take strong advice on security matters and behave accordingly and it is obviously a prime motivation for us to make sure that the championship is conducted safely for everyone concerned and we will be continuing to work with police here as we do everywhere else to that end.
“Other than that I have nothing to say about it – if we thought there was a security problem here we wouldn’t be making this announcement.”