DUBLIN The British Open is set to be held outside England and Scotland for the first time in over 60 years when it returns to Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush, tournament organizers the Royal & Ancient (R&A) said on Monday.
The Open championship was last held at the Northern Irish links course in 1951, the only other time the major championship was held anywhere but England and Scotland, and could be played again at the venue as early as 2019.
"I suppose this is just about the world's worst kept secret," R&A chief executive Peter Dawson told a news conference after making the much anticipated announcement.
"We couldn't be more excited about bringing the Open back here to one of the world's truly great links courses. There is a rich heritage here. It will give the game here and the whole region huge exposure."
The R&A said the club's members would now be asked to ratify the proposal. Dawson said 2019 would be the earliest it could be held, but it may have to wait a further year or two with course enhancements and infrastructure developments needed.
Royal Portrush, in the hometown of major champion Graeme McDowell and which also counts 2011 Open champion Darren Clark as a member, has played host the Senior British Open in recent years and hosted the Irish Open in 2012.
McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, said on Sunday that he was delighted that years of "gentle ribbing" of R&A boss Dawson from him, Clarke and fellow Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy was set to pay off.
Dawson said the trio's words of encouragement did not prove influential but their performances and the return of the Irish Open to Portrush two years ago was an eye-opener of the fan base for golf in Northern Ireland and Ireland.
He added that it would be premature to discuss any other potential new venues for the Open, which is rotated among venues and will be played at the Royal Liverpool course next month.
"NEW NORTHERN IRELAND"
The British Open will be latest in a series of high profile events to come to Northern Ireland which was beset by three decades of violence that cost the lives of 3,600 people before a peace deal largely ended the bloodshed 16 years ago.
The British province successfully hosted the G8 meeting of world leaders last year and thousands long starved of big sporting events packed the streets when the Giro d'Italia set off from Northern Ireland last month.
Sporadic sectarian violence still persists in parts of Northern Ireland thought and often breaks out when marches held by rival communities reach their peak in July, the time of year when the Open is held.
Dawson said that if organizers thought there was a security problem, they would not be making the announcement and Northern Irish politicians said it was a major vote of confidence in the province and would provide a huge boost to a once non-existent tourism sector.
"We come from a very troubled past here in Northern Ireland, there is reputational damage because of our past. We want people to think of Northern Ireland and immediately think of golf," Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson said.
"We are a society that is being transformed. This is what peace and stability looks like. These men wouldn't have dreamed of coming here 20 years ago, this shows the new Northern Ireland, a confident Northern Ireland in a new era."
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by John O'Brien)