The Open carries a certain gravitas that comes with being the oldest and arguably most renowned championship in the game of golf. It’s a tournament that strips the sport back to its essence – where players traverse coastal terrain, overcome the harshest of elements, and utilise their ingenuity in the name of putting the ball in the hole. We’ll put it this way: the winner of The Open is named “Champion Golfer of the Year” for a reason…

The 2019 tournament carries added sparkle thanks to its host. It hasn’t been easy to bring The Open back to Northern Ireland and Royal Portrush – both hosting the prestigious competition for the first time since 1951 – but the venue and the people will make this an unforgettable Major in more ways than one.

Renowned golf course architects Martin Ebert and Tom Mackenzie were tasked with the renovations to Harry Colt’s 1932 design, in particular the creation of two entirely new holes on the Dunluce Links (one part of the Royal Portrush 36-hole club). What they have created is a unique layout that will surely serve up four days of enthralling action.

Ebert believes there’s no course on The Open rota that boasts the dramatic duneland characteristics of Royal Portrush – and he’s right. This isn’t the traditionalist layout of St Andrews’ Old Course or the idiosyncratic test of Royal Lytham & St Anne’s bunker-strewn property, it’s a feral beast – the dragon of the Emerald Isle – that will ask who amongst its competitors has the ability to tame it.

At the age of 16, Rory McIlroy shot an astonishing 61 here during the 2005 North of Ireland Championship. But what will it take to unlock Portrush this time around?

These five holes are good place to start…

4th hole, “Fred Daly’s”

Par four, 482 yards

The unassuming first hole is likely to catch a few players out on their approach into a slippery uphill green, but fast starters will likely have a chance to get under par straight out the traps on the opening three holes. However, whatever march they may have stolen on the opposition will come under threat when they walk onto the brutish 4th tee.

This long par four stretches out almost 500 yards along the edge of the property, with thick rough guarding the left and out of bounds looming large on the right-hand side. Driver will be the play for all but the biggest hitters, with several bunkers just left of centre adding a little extra pressure. Find the short grass and you’re not in the clear just yet: the approach requires a medium to long iron into a green guarded by dunes on both sides. The two mounds slightly obscure the view of the flag making it difficult to stick it tight. Four pars across the week would be a great result.

Royal Portrush, 5th hole, Dunluce Links golf course

5th hole, “White Rocks”

Par four, 382 yards

Players who stumble on the previous hole will have a chance to immediately make amends on the 5th hole. Easily one of the most beautiful short par fours in the British Isles, this downhill dogleg right plays directly towards Portrush Strand and the Atlantic beyond.

The views may be inviting, but driving the green in the prevailing wind is likely to prove even more alluring to the game’s big hitters; an eagle here could kickstart a charge for the Claret Jug over the weekend.

Birdie or better is not guaranteed, however, as this tactical showpiece has teeth to bare. Eagle hunters will require a pinpoint-accurate drive over a dense swale of rough to get close to the green, while two pot bunkers and steep drop-offs defend any front pin locations. A little wind assistance should see the pros muscle the 350-yard carry to the centre of the green without issue, but out of bounds no more than two feet off the back of the sloped green means disaster lurks behind one unfortunate firm bounce.

Conservative players will take out some of the challenge by floating a long iron just over the corner of the dogleg and then firing
a wedge at the pin. Decisions, decisions…

7th hole, “Curran Point”

Par 5, 592 yards

Mackenzie and Ebert’s most important contribution to the Royal Portrush changes is a pair of holes at 7 and 8 that make use of the most dramatic dunescape on the property. Playing uphill and typically into the teeth of the wind, the 7th hole is the first of these designs and certainly the tougher task for the pros.

The tee shot is an intimidating one: a slim ribbon of fairway siddles alongside mounds the size of fallen titans all of 592 yards in the distance right up to the relative safety of the green. The yawning mouth of “Wee Nellie” bunker makes a soft fade to the left side of the fairway the safest play – tug the tee shot too far left, though, and a devilish little pot bunker will collect your chances of scoring under par.

Perhaps the greatest genius in Ebert’s design here is the narrowness of the fairway in the lay-up zone. There’s therefore no easy leave, with players forced to play aggressive in order to preserve par, regardless of whether they’re going for the green in two or not.

Royal Portrush has been criticised in the past for two weak finishing holes at 17 and 18. Utilising their spaces for the various spectator areas and introducing two much-improved holes is a masterstroke. Better still, their difficulty – in keeping with the original design – may be the difference between victory or disaster come the final round of The Open.

Royal Portrush, 16th hole, Dunluce Links golf course

16th hole, “Calamity Corner”

Par 3, 236 yards

If one hole could dictate the outcome of this year’s tournament, it would be the 16th. Aptly named “Calamity Corner”, it is simply one of the most difficult par threes in world golf.

A deep chasm of impenetrable rough stands between the players and the green 236 yards in the distance. Falling short is a fatal error, but it’s not as easy as making the shot. The hole is located at one of the tallest points on the golf course where the wind is at its most prevalent – judge the gust wrong and even well-struck shots can end up in serious trouble.

One of two par threes on the course that aren’t protected by bunkers, Colt’s classic design leaves nature as its defence. The miss, if there is one, is bailing out left into“Bobby Locke’s Hollow” – a mown run-off area that requires a delicate chip across the green to save par - so named as the famed South African Major champion played to this position on each day of The Open when it was hosted here in 1951. Expect to see plenty of today’s pros follow suit by aiming at this left portion and cutting the ball towards the flag.

For those in the pressure cooker on Sunday, a chance of Major championship victory in their grasp, this will be one of the most nerve-wracking shots of their lives.

Royal Portrush, 17th hole, Dunluce Links golf course

17th hole, “Purgatory”

Par four, 408 yards

Purgatory is another perfectly named hole here on Royal Portrush’s Dunluce Course – a design that can lead players to the pearly gates of heaven or deep into the depths of hell.

Choose to take driver off the tee and your landing area is a steep downslope, which can carry the ball all the way to the green. But the lumps and bumps of the fairway mean this is no given – a nasty pot bunker on the left will leave a tricky yardage into the putting surface, while two greenside bunkers eagerly gobble up any shots ever-so slightly offline. Taking this route brings chance into the equation.

The safe choice is a lay up to the top of the hill, where the undulating green (not for the first time) proves a worthy defence. Par on Sunday may be good enough for the leader, but this will be Last Chance Saloon for the chasing pack. Could The Open come down to one decision on the 17th? Time will tell...

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