In 2002 I as Minister for Culture Arts and Leisure was privileged to launch the Youth Games at Stormont. I was deeply impressed with the young people and their coaching staff. Among all the athletes participating were a group of young golfers. Their coach in particular stood out because of his belief in and optimism for the future of his team. The coach assured me at the time that among them were individuals who would go on to become world class players within their sport. I was impressed with his dedication and hope but struggled to share his optimism given the relative size of Northern Ireland in the world game.
Little did I know in just a few short years some of these young golfers along with other more established players would go on to make headlines across the world.
Northern Ireland’s success in golf in the last year is staggering with two US Open winners in Graham McDowell and Rory McIlroy and now Darren Clarke winning the British Open. The joy felt across the country at the success of these three young men is phenomenal particularly given the great adversity and family tragedy that Darren Clarke has had to cope with in recent years.
These three men along with others like Michael Hoey and Gareth Maybin are proudly flying the flag for Northern Ireland across the world proving the benefits of hard work and determination. They have shown a new image of Northern Ireland contrary to the usual scenes picked up by the world press of rioting and violence on the streets.
Throughout my time as Minister for Culture Arts and Leisure one of the key things I wanted to see was Northern Ireland hosting the British Open again. I believe that with it’s world class golfers and golf courses Northern Ireland has earned the right to host the event again. Courses like Royal Portrush which hosted the event in 1951 and Royal County Down are up there among the best in the world and I believe the golfing world would love to come to Northern Ireland to see for themselves the country and facilities that has produced three world class champions in a year.
In these gloomy economic times this opportunity cannot be allowed to slip away. The economic potential of hosting an Open for local tourism and jobs is immense. We must be able to build upon the success of our local golfers, encourage tourism and provide inspiration for our young people to go on and achieve the success of Clarke, McIlroy and McDowell.