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The Open: Portrush gets ready to welcome the golfing world

It would be fair to say that if you had a spare ticket for the Open Championship and waved it in the air of the Harbour Bar in packed-to-the-rafters Portrush, your hand would probably be shredded in the same kind of a way a stricken gazelle would get stripped to its bare bones by a bubbling shoal of piranha fish.

Everybody wants a piece of the action as the Open returns to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951. Getting a chunk of it is not easy though. Tickets for the championship days were gobbled up before you could say ‘tickets for the championship days are now on sa … oh, they’ve gone’ and the 148th staging of golf’s most cherished major has become the first sold out Open in history. Even briefs for the practise days are as rare as officially branded hen’s teeth.

The infrastructure, meanwhile, is as big and as bold as you would expect from a sporting and corporate beast that constantly grows arms and legs. “It’s as if a town in itself has parachuted on to the old historic links,” said Ian Bamford, the doyen of the Royal Portrush club and a man who is just as excited about the Open’s return to the town in 2019 as he was when it first went there 68 years ago.

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The Open was a slightly different animal in those days, both on and off the course. “I still remember queuing to watch a western at the cinema that week and was in touching distance of Dai Rees and Norman Von Nida,” reflected Bamford of those two well-kent golfers of the day who were killing a bit of time at night. “I don’t think you’ll get a Rory or a Dustin Johnson lining up to go to the cinema.”

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On the links, meanwhile, a teenage Bamford revelled in the up-close-and-personal spectating experience of an age blissfully devoid of the general clutter of this, that and the other inside the ropes these days. “I was one of the 8000 or so who followed the 36-holes on the final day, you could walk the fairways behind the ropes, with the crowds being controlled by a major who at times used a megaphone to control them,” said Bamford of an attendance slightly less than the 43,000 odd who are expected each day next week. “It was a shilling to get in. We were very close to the action, within 10 yards of them playing their shots. It was fascinating and a tremendous insight.”

Bamford’s eyes were on the decorated Fred Daly, the Portrush great who had won the Open in 1947. As for certain others? “My God, the girls liked Frank Stranahan, he was very, very handsome,” he said of that celebrated golfing Adonis.

The 1951 Open, which was eventually won by the colourful and charismatic Max Faulker who took home the Claret Jug and the £300 first prize, was the first time the championship had been off the British mainland. It wasn’t quite uncharted territory, though. “A lot of people thought the Open coming to Portrush was a thunderbolt from the blue but a lot of the locals were not surprised,” he said. “It was accustomed to pro golf, having hosted the Irish Open three times. There was a tremendous buzz and it caused a huge stir. Golf was an everyday part of life in Portrush and Portstewart.

“When Portrush was founded in 1888, there were only 1600 people in the town. There were four pubs and four churches and a very good harbour. It will be 190,000 plus next week. I’m not sure you’d get them in four pubs. They all raved about the Open in 1951. Frank Pennink (golfer, author and course architect) wrote at the time that the the Portrush Open ‘will long be remembered as one of the most successful ever held’. This one will be pretty special.”

Rory McIlroy will grab a considerable chunk of the attention at Portrush. He’s always made folk sit up and take notice and his Portrush course record of 61 at the North of Ireland Amateur Championship as a teenager remains seared on the memories of those who saw it. “It was the best second nine holes of golf I have ever seen from an amateur,” said Bamford. “I was officiating that day, it was magical stuff.”

The old links will be a step into the unknown for many of the global campaigners and its abundant perils and pitfalls will tease and torment. “Calamity Corner will be key,” said Bamford of the treacherous par-3 16th over a yawning chasm. “As long as the R&A don’t relent and play them off a slightly forward tee. It’s very demanding. Bobby Locke’s hollow, the bale out area to the left, will be popular. That hole caused problems in 1951 and history will repeat itself. And the 17th could be catastrophic. The last three holes will be pivotal.”

Bamford, now a sprightly 85, will take it all in from a grandstand seat. “I’ll not be able to run round the course like I did in ’51, getting told off my the marshal,” he said. Some more Portrush memories will be made next week.

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