This week, for the first time since 1951, The Open returns to Northern Ireland. The field tees off Thursday at The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush beginning at 1:35 a.m. EDT (6:35 a.m. local time).
This marks the second time golf’s oldest championship has been held outside Scotland and England. Modifications have been made to the venerable links, which was designed by Harry S. Colt. Starting their project in 2015, esteemed architects MacKenzie and Ebert used land from the adjacent Valley course to build two new holes – the 7th and 8th – specifically for the tournament.
Francesco Molinari is the defending champion. Rory McIlroy, who grew up in nearby Hollywood, is the betting favorite and shot a course-record 61 at Royal Portrush in the 2005 North of Ireland Championship. Since his victory in 2014 at Royal Liverpool, McIlroy hasn’t finished outside the top-5 in The Open, either.
Brooks Koepka, seeking his second major title of the year and fifth consecutive top-2 finish, has loyal caddie – and longtime Royal Portrush member – Ricky Elliott on the bag. Tiger Woods hasn’t played since Pebble Beach. He’s paired with Patrick Reed and Matt Wallace and tees off at 10:10 a.m. EDT on Thursday. Dustin Johnson hopes to bag an elusive second major after a series of close calls.
Expect to see chilly temperatures in the 50s and 60s, daily rain and of course, wind. Severe changes in elevation enhance the challenge at Royal Portrush and experience is a vital tool for those hoping to hoist the Claret Jug. The average age of the past 10 champions is 35 years, 3 months. The competitors won’t be able to get away with purposely overshooting the 18th green, either. They’ll face a devilish lie in the drop zone on the 474-yard-par 4 that finishes a diabolical three-hole closing stretch that’s certain to finish The Open hopes of more than one competitor.
The 150th Open at St. Andrews in 2021 is certain to be a special experience in the Home of Golf. On one particular Escorted Tour, PerryGolf guests will play memorable rounds on a quartet of courses that have combined to host The Open on 35 occasions and wrap their trip by attending the final two rounds of the championship. PerryGolf is also pleased to take golfers to test their game on the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush as part of our new Irish Links Golf Cruise, which has offerings in 2020 and 2021.
The new, condensed PGA Tour schedule put in place for the 2018-19 season means that The Open is the final major of the calendar year. It’s been a thrilling season, beginning with Woods’ exciting victory at The Masters, Koepka’s dominant performance at Bethpage and Gary Woodland’s flawless weekend to stave off Koepka at Pebble Beach. Still, the golf world has anticipated this championship at Royal Portrush ever since it was announced. The course is in excellent condition and certain to offer a stiff test. After a practice round earlier this week, the affable American pro Rickie Fowler avoided predicting a winning score due to the uncertain conditions ahead, saying simply that any round under par would be a good one.
PGA champion Brooks Koepka, World No. 2 Dustin Johnson and defending champion Francesco Molinari head the list of exempt players. As of today, 97 players have earned entry into the field either through qualifying at sites around the world or receiving an exemption based on tournament performance and world ranking. The final rounds of qualifying will take place in the weeks preceding the championship at sites around the U.K.
This quest for the Claret Jug has stirred curiosity across the British Isles, where The Open rotates between a strong roster of courses in Scotland and England.
The “Royals” in England are a diverse quartet of links, bolstered by a rich tradition and formidable architecture enabling them to withstand the game’s advances in technology and Mother Nature’s fierce hand. In addition, England has other fine courses, often overlooked, that are regularly used for Final Qualifying in The Open.
Before you let PerryGolf take you to play these venerable layouts where champions have been crowned and reborn, let’s examine seven of England’s finest courses.
Royal Birkdale – Since joining The Open rota in 1954, it’s been the most regular venue other than St. Andrews. The course also has played host to more championships and international events than any course in the world since World War II, including Walker Cups, Ryder Cups, Curtis Cups and Women’s and Senior Opens. Ranked No. 1 in England and top five in the U.K., Birkdale was formed in 1899 but the current links was established in 1922.
Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s – Bobby Jones won The Open here in its 1926 debut on this links in Lancashire. En route to The Open title in 1979, Seve Ballesteros literally got up-and-down from a parking lot, which perhaps served as origin of a phrase used around the world when referring to golfer’s great short games. Esteemed golf writer Bernard Darwin described Lytham as a ‘just beast.’ Locke, Player, Thomson and Els also won here.
Royal Liverpool – Most folks call it Hoylake because that’s the village where the course is located. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have fond memories of the course, which is site of The 151st Open in 2022, because each rode supreme ballstriking to a major championship victory there. Woods’ victory in 2006 was particularly emotional because it was his first major since his father, Earl, passed away.
Royal St. George’s – The 149th Open will be held here, nine years after Darren Clarke finally broke through and hoisted the Claret Jug on his 20th appearances. Maiden, the par-3 6th, is a spectacular vantage point for spectators due its large mounds surrounding the green and the wicked wind which can wreak havoc on a golfer’s approach. Greg Norman shot a record 64 to win one of his two titles here at the southernmost course in The Open rota.
Southport & Ainsdale – Twice a Ryder Cup host, S&A was designed by the prolific James Braid and fits seamlessly in the rolling linksland. Many who have qualified for The Open in recent years first had to master S&A for 36 holes in final qualifying. Established in 1906, we’re fond of the first hole, a par-3 measuring 204 yards from the tips and the clubhouse, which offers the ideal setting for a post-round beverage and rehashing.
Hillside – Another fixture on England’s Golf Coast in the area around Southport, the 7,029-yard course wanders up-and-down sandhills and through towering pines to create a tranquil setting – until you try to par some of the holes on this beauty, redesigned by Fred Hawtree in the 1960s. The European Tour’s professionals will try their skills here in the 2019 British Masters.
Formby – Since 1884, golfers from across the U.K. have enjoyed the challenge at Formby, which combines the best of links and parkland golf in a delightful array of variety. The shots required here force golfers to mesh skill and strategy as they meander through the pines. Navigate the undulating fairways, avoid the deep bunkers and handle the gusting winds and you might just solve this riddle.
As the purses and galleries increased, having sufficient room to erect the necessary infrastructure on and around the course became a requisite ingredient for any club wishing to play host to the Open Championship. Few doubted the quality of the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush – it’s routinely ranked in the top 20 in the World – and whether the golf holes provided a stern enough test to deserve a spot in the Open rota. But the tight quarters around the course seemed too cramped to welcome 200,000 spectators during tournament week and ensure they enjoyed a pleasant experience.
That was the situation until 2014 when leaders from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club along with noted golf course architects Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert formed a plan to renovate Dunluce Links, create the necessary room for the Open’s Spectator Village and make the golf course a demanding test for the modern professional without compromising legendary Harry S. Colt’s design from the 1930s. The legendary golf writer Bernard Darwin described Dunluce Links as such in 1951:
Mr. H.S. Colt, who
designed it in its present
form, has thereby built
himself a monument more
enduring than brass.
Upon receiving unanimous approval for the renovations from the Royal Portrush membership in 2015, the R&A awarded the club the 2019 Open Championship. On-course construction began that fall and was completed in the summer of 2017. Each step of the journey, Mackenzie and Ebert surely saw Colt’s vision and heard Darwin’s words, as they steered their crew to execute a renovation fit to carry the course through the Open and decades beyond.
With the R&A intending to use the former 17th and 18th holes on Dunluce Links as the Spectator Village, it was Mackenzie and Ebert’s task to create two new additions on the existing property. They added the 7th, a 572-yard par-5, and the 8th, a 435-yard par-4, which fit the terrain and routing as if they’ve been in place for decades. No. 16, the brutish 235-yard par-3 known as Calamity Corner, is one of the only bunkerless holes at Royal Portrush – not as if sand is needed to protect par. Open contenders will aim to avoid Bobby Locke’s Hollow which lines the left side, poised to collect a wild hook or pull.
In all, Dunluce Links has the fewest bunkers (70) of any course in the Open rota. By comparison, there are 150 at Muirfield and 210 at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s.
Golf observers, club members and historians hope for a mystical week in July 2019 to extend a golden era for Irish golf as Dublin native Padraig Harrington, local favorite Graeme McDowell, longtime Royal Portrush member Darren Clarke and world No. 10 Rory McIlroy – who grew up in Holywood roughly 60 miles away – have claimed major titles in the last decade.