With the Claret Jug up for grabs on an iconic Northern Ireland course, we spoke to two South Africans with first-hand knowledge of what to expect. MICHAEL VLISMAS reports.
Gary Player is old school. Ask him a question and you’ll get a direct answer. And he expects the same from you.
‘How do you deal with failure in life?’ I once asked him.
‘Life will hit you harder than a 1-iron right smack between the eyes. We’re guaranteed to fail in life. Our aim is not to go through life without making a single mistake. It’s to live better, despite our mistakes,’ he said.
Player’s forthrightness was groomed at a time when men’s words flew straighter than even the most sweetly struck 1-iron. Men like Ben Hogan who, when Player once phoned him for advice on a matter, asked him: ‘Who do you represent on Tour?’
‘Dunlop,’ replied Player.
‘Well, go and ask Mr Dunlop then,’ said Hogan.
It also explains why if you ask Player what he enjoys about links golf, he’ll say: ‘The challenge. If you want an experience, play a links. If you want to make lots of birdies, there are other courses to do that on.’
But it’s tricky to ask a man who has designed over 400 golf courses worldwide and who has yet to be presented with a particular situation or a shot on a golf course he doesn’t know how to handle, what he so admires about Royal Portrush, the home of the 2019 Open Championship.
Tricky in the sense that you would expect a legend of the game with an encyclopedic knowledge of golf layouts to present you with a detailed argument about the positives and negatives of this particular golf course.
But what you get is Player getting straight to the point.
‘It checks all the boxes,’ he says. ‘Seaside views, deep-links pot bunkers, blind shots to holes, humongous dunes, bouncy turf and gently undulating greens. It’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the best golf courses in the world.’
It also explains why Player recently fought so hard to have his three Senior Open Championship titles, of which the Royal Portrush triumph was the last, recognised by the PGA Tour and PGA Champions Tour as valid Senior Majors.
When you’re as competitive as Player and you identify a golf course that ‘checks all the boxes’ in your own head and then win on it, they better damn well recognise it for the achievement it is.
Bobby Locke went to Royal Portrush for the 1951 Open, which he was seeking to win for the third-straight year. Calling it ‘a stiff test’, he pulled a muscle in his left shoulder during his practice round. But he was still within three shots of the lead after day one, four back after 36 holes and shot consecutive 74s over the final two rounds to finish eight shots behind champion Max Faulkner. But the challenge of the course meant it was still good enough for a share of sixth place.
It speaks volumes about the test that is Royal Portrush that a golfer such as Locke, who had such a firm hold on The Open Championship at that time – winning it in 1949, 1950, 1952 and 1957 – should have had his grip temporarily loosened by this famous links.
At the 2012 Irish Open played at Royal Portrush, Darren Clarke birdied the first hole and then eagled the second, which was enough to move him up 29 places in the field over just those two holes.
Yet, even Locke knew his limits when it came to Royal Portrush. The par-three 16th, known delightfully as Calamity Corner, will no doubt garner plenty of attention at this year’s Open as it begins a fearsome finishing stretch on this course. During that 1951 Open, Locke played the hole in exactly the same way each day, with a tee shot left of the green and in a hollow, and from there he was more than happy to chip and putt for par each round.
When Player thinks of Royal Portrush, he naturally thinks of his final Major championship victory – the 1997 Senior Open Championship.
‘Indeed, Royal Portrush holds a special place in my heart. I was nearly 62 when I won my last Senior Major – a tribute to my diet and fitness level at that age. John Bland and I battled until a sudden-death playoff.
‘The moment the winning putt fell on the second playoff hole was incredible. It had been seven years since my last Major. Of course, I wanted to win another to top my regular Major count. But my goal when I first started on the Senior Tour was to get to at least nine. I was as excited and proud as when I won my first Open Championship at the age of 23.’
Along with most of the golf world, Player is supportive of the R&A’s decision to return The Open to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951, the only time the Major was played at this Northern Ireland links.
‘After 68 years without hosting The Open, all I can say is it’s about time. Everyone is very excited.
‘And I must compliment Northern Ireland. It’s a beautiful part of the world with tremendous history and the people are simply fantastic.’
Player joins many in world golf in having a sentimental favourite for The Open in Rory McIlroy.
‘I’d like Rory to win and be this year’s Champion Golfer of the Year. It’s in his backyard so he already has an advantage. But Rickie Fowler is due to win a Major and he has won playing a links course before, at the Scottish Open.’
And from a golfer’s perspective, Player’s advice on how to play Royal Portrush is as direct as you would expect.
‘Patience. It’s all about patience. That’s key in links golf. Play the course and the elements. Use your strengths. You might get a bad draw with the unpredictable Irish coast weather. Tough! You have to survive and the odds could change the next day. Know that you are never, ever out of contention at The Open. And never give up.’
Another South African golfer with experience of Royal Portrush is Jbe Kruger.
He finished tie-30th – the highest-placed South African that week – when the European Tour’s Irish Open was played there in 2012. The weather was typically brutal. But it’s not the weather the man from the Free State remembers the most.
‘The people of Portrush are amazing,’ says Kruger. ‘When we played it in 2012, it was the first European Tour event in Northern Ireland in many years. And in my opinion, the people of Northern Ireland are the friendliest European nation of all.
‘And they absolutely love their golf. When we teed off the 1st, the fairway was lined with people standing about six or seven deep. They are so passionate about the game. The town is also very pretty.’
In terms of how the course will play at The Open, Kruger remembers it being very soft because of the rain. And as such he feels it wasn’t as severe as it could possibly be.
‘It’s a typical links course but it didn’t play that hard because of all the rain that week. But I can tell you that I liked it more than any other links course I’ve played. I suppose it has a lot to do with the great history of the course.
‘But I love links golf because of the creativity it brings out in your game, and Royal Portrush definitely requires this. I like the fact that on a links course you don’t have to hit the perfect shot to get a good result. You can use the land around you. But for this reason, I think somebody with local knowledge of Royal Portrush will benefit here.’
The way Kruger describes it, Royal Portrush will indeed be golf heaven for the golfers and the spectators.
‘I remember that there were plenty of good viewing points for spectators throughout the golf course. There are a lot of high points on the course that give you good views of the holes.
‘I think this stands out for me because in 2012 I met John Daly there for the first time and ended up playing the final round with him. I remember two things from that. He drank so much Diet Coke during the round; I couldn’t believe it. And the Portrush people absolutely loved him. The crowd went crazy for him.’
A great test of golf, passionate galleries, a course loved and respected by the players. As Player quite rightly says, Royal Portrush checks all the boxes.
FOR THE RECORD
Tickets for The Open Championship at Royal Portrush were sold out for the first time in the history of the event. Additional tickets went on sale in April after the R&A extended the capacity of the venue on all four days to cater for the huge demand among golf fans. It means 215 000 spectators will attend the championship across the week.
John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism NI, said: ‘This increase in capacity will give even more people an opportunity to visit our shores and with tens of thousands of spectators and visitors from across the world expected to be in attendance, it is shaping up to be the biggest event ever held here.’