“50,000 people every day - it’s going to be even bigger than 2019!”

“50,000 people every day - it’s going to be even bigger than 2019!”

30/05/2024

As Royal Portrush’s Gary McNeill prepares for his second Open Championship at the venue, he discusses his previous experiences of being the Head Pro at a tournament-hosting club.

Can you tell us about the lead up to Royal Portrush hosting the Open in 2019?

I started at Royal Portrush at the back end of 1999, and we hosted the Senior Open in 2004. In 2010, we hosted The Palmer Cup, then we hosted a very big Irish Open. It was the first event to ever sell out on the European Tour. We had 140,000 spectators through the gates that week. The R&A were attending the event, watching what was going on, it all went wonderfully well, things were starting to happen. As a private members’ club, we had to get the members’ approval, so we had an EGM to discuss all of this and the requirement to change the golf course – the existing 17th and 18th holes were earmarked for where the tented village would be with the main entrance. We were very fortunate to have a wonderful second course in the valley links, so we pinched a couple of holes and built one hole, which is now the 7th, and an entirely new hole, now the 8th. There was virtually a unanimous decision at the EGM – the members could see the value of bringing the Championship back to Ireland again and to Royal Portrush and the legacy it would leave.

Over the next few years, there was a lot of construction as we had to prepare not just the golf course but the surrounding areas in readiness for the event. A lot of fibre optic cables got buried in the ground, bunkers were added and new championship tees. Then basically we were ready to go.

As Head Professional, did you have to take on any extra responsibilities in the run-up?

I’m very fortunate that I have good people around me. I’ve got wonderful assistants. really good staff. That makes it possible to do what I do. I was thrust into the media spotlight a little bit more than I thought I would be in the run-up. I reached out to a lot of local places, telling the story about the Open. The community had lots of questions they wanted to ask. What was it going to be? What was coming? That was a big part of what I did. Then of course you have all the golf magazines, all the social media channels and the TV networks. What I learned is that if somebody says they want you for about half an hour it means they want you for four hours!

So you were the public face of the Championship?

In a lot of respects. There was obviously a chairman of the Championship committee, but people wanted to know what the golf course was like because there hadn’t been an Open Championship played there for over 60 years, so everybody was learning about the golf course. I knew every yardage of every hole, all the idiosyncrasies of the course, and I had to communicate that. The media wanted to know what sort of player was potentially going to contend and things like that. It was good fun. I enjoyed it. The more of it you do the more comfortable you get at it.

The role of playing marker traditionally falls on the club professional – how did it feel standing on the first tee?

It was terrifying! You don’t find out until 8.30pm on Friday night whether it is actually going to happen or not. I actually had considered this prior to the Open, so I had to go and get the clubs out again and started to play in the PGA winter alliances, to try to prepare myself.

McIlroy hitting it out of bounds in his first hole on the first round almost relaxed me a little bit - no matter what I did, I couldn’t do any worse than that!

Paul Waring, who I played with on the Saturday, was very good to me. I met him in the players’ centre in the morning for breakfast, we went to the range together, then he said, ‘come on let’s go to the first tee together’. He knew I’d be pretty nervous, and he was very accommodating.

I wasn’t prepared for how quiet it went. There’s an announcement of your name, a big round of applause and then it all went so quiet. I could hear my heart beat.

I managed to get off the first tee, just about. After that I was OK.

What did you learn from the Open that will help when it returns to Royal Portrush next year?

It’s going to be a bigger tournament, we can see that already, but with the Open coming back so quickly, everything is fresh in everybody’s minds. The R&A can really look at how they can improve on last time.
They’ve been enlarging the spectator areas and access for them, smoothing out some of the peaks and troughs off the fairway where the spectators go to make it more user-friendly. We were limited to 44,000 people a day last time, we suspect that’s probably going to be increased to 50 to 55,000 a day this time.
For me, time management is a huge thing in anyone’s job, and it’s very difficult to manage your time in an Open because things tend to get sprung on you. If somebody wants you to do some media, they tend to ask you about an hour beforehand. So it’s difficult to plan your time.

The week goes so quickly. I was so excited last time, you don’t want to miss anything. You turn up at 6am and you’re still there at 11pm, so I think that taking a few more breaks during the week, just to get off site and refresh and come back, will help. It’s a wonderful experience, I’m very fortunate that I’ve done it. A great honour, something I’m very proud of.

Has the club considered sustainability in its preparations?

In 2019, The R&A had a big initiative regarding water, with water refill stations on the golf course. They were giving out aluminium drinking bottles for people to use. No bottled water for the spectators. This is something we’ve taken on board as a club. We have added our own water stations. We’ve also undergone a big programme to install solar panels on the greenkeepers’ sheds. The majority of our greenkeepers’ equipment now is all electric. There’s a new boiler that’s biofuel. Even in the pro shop, we have compostable paper bags, we don’t have plastic bags anymore. We have EV chargers for vehicles. The R&A are very keen to have a carbon neutral championship. I’m not sure if we will be the first one, but we are certainly working towards it.

How important has hosting the Open been in your career?

The Open has been the highlight for me, the icing on the cake. To be at Royal Portrush anyway is a privilege. But to be there with the Open is very special. It’s a great part of the world. It was a wonderful moment for Irish golf. I think we were all at the first tee at 6.30am when Darren Clarke struck that opening tee shot. And to end up with Shane Lowry holing the winning putt on the final green was a fairytale ending to something that was a long time in the making. A proud moment for everybody associated with Royal Portrush and we’ve got it all ahead of us again in 2025.

Have you any unfulfilled ambitions as a PGA Professional?

I think The Open dominates everything I’m going for. I’m looking forward to getting out on the road again, visiting lots of courses, representing The PGA. I’ve got lots to look forward to in the next two years. Just representing the club and delivering another successful Open Championship. That’s my main ambition for now.

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