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Golfing Glitterati to Help Lift Northern Ireland Economic Gloom

Portrush Golfers Seek to Lift Gloom in Northern Ireland Economy
Rory McIlroy, left, Graham McDowell, right, and Darren Clark will tea off today at Portrush, a links course last played in 1947, as the province bets on golf to help pull it out of recession. Photographer: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Alice Rohdich’s family have struggled to sell jewelry and souvenirs in Portrush, a seaside town in Northern Ireland, for the past four years as the global economic crisis dashed a revival in the region better known for sectarian violence.

She’s banking on the success of the nation’s three golf stars Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke to draw visitors when the Irish Open starts today.

“It’s been hard going this past few years,” says Rohdich, as she arranges a window display of golf memorabilia. “But this has created a buzz, we’re hoping it will help the entire town.”

Portrush, a town of 6,400, has been hit by a decline in visitor numbers, rising unemployment and a property crash that began in 2008, leaving dozens of empty properties. Its fortunes echo that of Northern Ireland, where house prices doubled between 2005 and 2007 before tumbling by 50 percent after the bubble burst a year later. Unemployment in the province has doubled in the past four years.

Since March the government and local business have spent about 650,000 pounds ($1 million) renovating the town. Derelict buildings abandoned by developers have been freshly painted, building sites are shrouded in hoardings and shop-fronts have had a face lift.

“It’s been a big effort from the local community,” said Christine Alexander, a lawmaker at local municipality Coleraine Borough Council. “People and businesses donated time and money. People were out with paintbrushes pitching in. We’ve been trying to spruce it up ahead of the golf.”

Three Majors

Alexander said that during the property boom, developers bought sites in a “frenzy” only to abandon them when the global financial crisis began in 2008.

Northern Ireland, with 97 golf courses and a population of 1.75 million, has produced three out of the last nine winners of the so-called Majors in the past two seasons, with McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke winning one each. The U.S. with a population of 314 million and 18,000 courses has also had three winners in that period.

McIlroy, 23, and ranked second in the world, is the region’s biggest golfing success. Last year he won the U.S. Open with a record score, following on from McDowell’s success in the same tournament the year before. Clarke won the Open Championship last year.

McIlroy, McDowell and Clarke are among 156 golfers competing in the three day Open, which is expected to bring more than 100,0000 spectators to Portrush. Colin Montgomerie, Keegan Bradley and Padraig Harrington are also competing. The tournament is being held on the 18-hole Dunluce course of the Royal Portrush Golf Club, which last hosted the Irish Open in 1947. The last time the event was held in Northern Ireland was at south Belfast’s Belvoir Park Golf Club in 1953.

Real Lift

“My brother is a professional golfer,” said Elizabeth Dykes, 64, who has lived in Portrush all her life. “He’s coming back for the Open. It’s going to be a real lift for the town, it will put us on the map. At least that’s what we are hoping.”

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly was revived in 2007, ending a three decade-long conflict that claimed 3,500 lives before largely petering out with a peace deal in 1998. A peace dividend of jobs and prosperity was halted by the global financial crisis.

“It’s good that they have done something to improve the town,” said Manus Brolly, an unemployed 32 year-old who lost his job as a chef when a local restaurant closed last year. “But I wonder if they are just painting over the cracks?”

Queen Visits

Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army leader, met and shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II yesterday, in a further step in the region’s peace process.

McGuinness became the first Sinn Fein leader to meet a British monarch when the pair attended an event in Belfast as Queen Elizabeth continues a tour of the U.K. as part of her Jubilee celebrations.

Sinn Fein boycotted the queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland last year, the first trip of its kind since the state gained independence from Britain in 1921. The party said the visit was “premature.” McGuinness said this week he’ll meet the monarch this time as an “act of reconciliation” toward unionists in Northern Ireland.

“I think the whole country has had it rough this past while,” said Rohdich. “This is a piece of good news for us.”

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