sport

R&A plays down Portrush reports

The R&A insist it remains "some distance" from being able to stage the Open Championship in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

Rumours of the Open returning to Royal Portrush have been circulating for some time, with reports on Sunday claiming a deal had been done for 2019, 68 years after Max Faulkner won the only Open staged outside England and Scotland.

However, the R&A's response on Twitter labelled such reports as "Portrush rumours" and a statement released read: "As part of our commitment to examine the feasibility of staging an Open Championship at Portrush, the R&A continues to discuss this at a conceptual level with Royal Portrush Golf Club and the Northern Ireland Executive.

"Discussions have been positive but we are still some distance from being in a position to take the Open to Northern Ireland."

The R&A denied reports last summer that the Open was set to be held at Portrush in 2018. R&A chief executive Peter Dawson admitted that it is "a fantastic golf course," but concerns remain over the infrastructure required to stage a major and Dawson feels the current nine-course Open rota is "about right".

Portrush has not hosted a major championship since the 1951 Open, but the Irish Open drew massive crowds there in 2012 and the likes of major champions Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell have been lobbying on Portrush's behalf.

It has also been suggested that the R&A would hasten its decision after Portrush emerged as a surprise contender to stage the US PGA Championship.

The PGA of America is studying the impact of holding the event outside the United States, with the earliest possible date in 2020. It had been thought that Asia would be the most likely venue, but PGA of America president Ted Bishop said in November last year that he was interested in Portrush.

"Royal Portrush would be a great first international major," Bishop said.

"I think given the powerful effect that Irish golfers have on the professional game today, that might be a good place to start."

Portrush native McDowell, whose brother works at the club, said at the time: "It's always been a dream of mine to play the Open there but the US PGA would do nicely.

"It's very bizarre and an amazing statement. I couldn't believe it and read it three times. I had heard the US PGA was looking at going global, which is a very positive step forward, but I was expecting Asia, not the north coast of Ireland.

"Even if it never comes to fruition it's a great boost to be mentioned in that breath. My brother Gary is on the greenkeeping staff there and he will have a spring in his step."

Despite the R&A's stance, it is understood negotiations with Portrush are very well advanced and tourism minister Arlene Foster told Press Association Sport: "Obviously if the R&A does make a decision to put Royal Portrush on the rota it will be a tremendous thing for Northern Ireland and a very positive sign we are moving confidently on and I think we want to send that message out."

Asked if the potential for disorder in mid-July - the height of marching season - could be an issue, Foster noted the success of staging the Giro d'Italia cycling race in Northern Ireland over the last three days.

"If they are looking on this week and they are seeing the way the entire community has taken to the Giro d'Italia I think sport transcends a lot of what may be seen as our difficulties," she added.

Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable Matt Baggott added: "I think these events actually help to focus people on what's good, rather than some of the things that are negative.

"Let's not forget that in July the vast, vast majority of parades pass off perfectly peacefully. It's only one or two that we still have problems with, so we have got to get things in perspective."