10/20/2015

Historic news hit the golf world Tuesday morning. The R&A announced that Royal Portrush Golf Club will host the 2019 British Open, the course’s first such championship since 1951. While the 68-year gap is of note, so too is the location. Portrush is in Northern Ireland.

The 1951 Open Championship remains the only one played outside the island of Great Britain (Englishman Max Faulkner finished at three-under to take the Claret Jug). So it’s no surprise that Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell took to twitter to express a joy his countrymen shared.

A more famous Northern Ireland native, Rory McIlroy, wasn’t in the mood for social media Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean he’s not excited to tee off in four years. According to Jason Sobel, McIlroy set the Portrush course record with a 61…when he was 16.
McIlroy will be a seasoned 30 (!) by the time the 2019 Open rolls around.

Who knows? Perhaps the tournament will mark his passing of Tiger Woods with 15 majors (Rory would have to win 10 of the next 14 to set that up. So probably not).
There’s more to this story, though, than just golf as there always is when Northern Ireland is the subject. The country is still caught between a British and Irish identity, a tension highlighted by McIlroy’s indecision when it came to the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Asked which nation he would represent, the United Kingdom (of which Northern Ireland is a part) or Ireland, McIlroy initially stated that he was leaning towards the former.
“The fact is, I have always felt more British than Irish,” he said at the time.

Two years later, he changed his mind. He’ll represent Ireland in Rio.

The Open heading back to Portrush is either a sign of the times or a reaffirmation of Northern Ireland’s standing within the United Kingdom. The long gap between visits to the course was surely in part due to the religious strife that crippled the nation for much of the 20th century. A conversation about the nation rarely ends without mention of “The Troubles,” the worst stretch of bloodshed in the history of modern Ireland. Now, and this is said with great hope, the terrorism lies in the past and the R&A feels comfortable returning.

But the question remains: is this an Open Championship staged in Northern Ireland or a plain, old British Open?

Perhaps that doesn’t matter but with McIlroy’s allegiance to Ireland for the Olympics it at least suggests that there’s now a thin border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (In fact, Ireland and Northern Ireland combine to form one rugby team, which recently competed at that sport’s World Cup).

And yet, it’s hard to imagine the R&A ever going to the Southern part of the island. The result is a unique distinction for Portrush. It’s the only course to ever host an Irish Open, which it did in 2012, as well as a British Open.

Whether any tension comes from these political issues is still a few years away.

But it’s something worth watching.