The exclusive Royal Portrush Golf Club has passed the first hurdle in plans to upgrade its course and bring back the Open Championship by 2019.
A special meeting of members on Friday night voted overwhelmingly in favour of the first redevelopment of the world-renowned links in the 60 plus years since it last hosted the major tournament.
Only two of the 237 who attended the Magherabuoy Hotel in Portrush refused to back the plans in a show of hands with insiders suggesting the opponents — two men from one family and in their 30s — were voting against it for a bet or a joke.
Philip Tweedie, a past captain and current member of the club’s tournament committee, said there was a feeling of excitement about the progress.
“We always wanted to have a unanimous decision as much as possible so there was unity in the club and we think that is what we have achieved,” he said.
A planning application is expected to be made by mid-October but authorities are not likely to make a decision until possibly next April.
In an attempt to expedite the process and avoid confrontation with environmentalists, the club has already undertaken ecology reports on the dune system.
Work is being tentatively planned for next autumn-winter.
The first redevelopment will be on the Valley course alongside work on new greens on the Dunluce course, but any significant infrastructure changes are being planned not to coincide with bird-nesting season.
Mr Tweedie added: “Everything has got to improve and strengthen. Ultimately what we are working on the Dunluce and Valley links are creating stronger courses that are fit for Open competitive golf.”
The changes will involve taking two holes out of the Valley course and creating three new holes, plans which Mr Tweedie described as “stunning”.
Royal Portrush has undergone seven significant changes since the course first opened as The County Club in 1888 but no development work has been done in the decades since the Open last visited.
The R&A, organisers of the Open, have been notified of the decision.
The hour long hotel meeting on Friday night was held after detailed planning by the club’s management including architect Martin Ebert laying the groundwork with a model exhibition and maps in the clubhouse to detail all the changes.
Members were taken on tours of the prestigious Dunluce Links in groups of 40 or 50 for experts to walk and talk them through the redevelopment.
The Dunluce course will be improved to a par 71 0f 7,337 yards. Among the changes will be new greens — the eighth will be a two tier and the par five ninth will become a par four.
Some new bunkers will be dug while the current practice ground will be used for tentage.
A 75-page brochure has been made available, primarily for members, to outline how the changes will alter the courses.
Mr Tweedie added: “It’s a massive sense excitement in terms of getting the opportunity to get the course strengthened and enhanced.
“The opportunity it’s bringing for so many people in terms of members and then in terms of the general public, for Portrush, for Northern Ireland and for Ireland.”
Royal Portrush was added to the Open rota, with 2019 a potential date for its long awaited return to major golf.
The decision was sparked in part by the record breaking attendance at the 2012 Irish Open at the venue.
The spectacular course on the scenic Causeway coast last staged the Open in 1951 - the only time it has been played outside England and Scotland.
Several major championship victories by local superstars Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke since 2010 have added a real impetus to the campaign to bring the championship back, with all three lobbying on behalf of the course.
The R&A envisage Royal Portrush hosting the tournament on a regular basis in the future.