By Gary Anderson

The Open Championship is set to return to Royal Portrush possibly as early as 2019 following an announcement by the Royal and Ancient today ©Getty Images The world's oldest golf major, the Open Championship is set to return to the Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland with the Royal and Ancient confirming that the tournament could be staged there as early as 2019.

Royal and Ancient chief executive, Peter Dawson, who is also President of the International Golf Federation, revealed that the County Antrim course has been added to the roster of courses used for the Open Championship but an exact date for its return has yet to finalised.

Planned changes to the course have to be implemented before any date can be confirmed with 2019 seen as the earliest these can be completed.

"We couldn't be more excited about bringing the Open back here to one of the world's truly great links courses and we have every confidence that Royal Portrush will prove to be an excellent venue in absolutely every way," said Dawson.

"Golf enjoys passionate support in Northern Ireland and indeed throughout Ireland and we expect there will be huge interest in the Championship from the many thousands of golf fans here."

The planned changes will see two new holes - a par-five and a par-four - built on the land currently occupied by the fifth and sixth holes in the Valley Course.

The Open would then finish on the current 16th green with the current 17th and 18th holes being used for the tented village.

The new holes would then be incorporated into the current course from the par-three sixth onwards as the new seventh and eighth.

"There are planned course enhancements and infrastructure development which will require ratification by the club's members and by the planning authorities and so we will not be able to announce a date for the first event until these permissions are in place," said Dawson.

"Twenty nineteen is the earliest it can be but it maybe that we have to wait a year or two longer than that."

Planned changes to the course at Royal Portrush have to be implemented before the Open Championship returns ©Getty Images Planned changes to the course at Royal Portrush have to be implemented before the Open Championship returns ©Getty Images

The Royal Portrush Golf Club is set to hold an Emergency General Meeting (EGM) later this year at which its 500 members will be asked to vote on ratifying the changes to the course which would also see 20,000 grandstand seats put in place to allow around 40,000 spectators a day to attend the Open Championship.

Club captain Simon Rankin is confident that members will vote to implement the necessary alterations.

"There is not anybody in this club who doesn't want the Open Championship and isn't willing to make those changes to do that," said Rankin.

"The members then have to decide how they would like it afterwards.

"Everyone knows there are 16 magnificent holes out there and the 17th and 18th, which are good golf holes and would be great holes on any other course, are perhaps not in the same character as the others.

"And so if we can build two new holes and whether the members want to play them all the time or some of the time, we will wait and see.

"People are fully on board."

Royal Portrush last hosted the Open Championship in 1951, the only time the tournament has been staged outside England and Scotland in its 154-year history.

The course, which sits on the Causeway Coast running across the north coast of Ireland, hosted the Irish Open in 2012, the first time the event was staged in Northern Ireland since 1953.

That tournament was viewed as a huge success and Dawson revealed that the record crowds in 2012 helped sway the decision to bring the Open back to Portrush as has the performances of Northern Ireland golfers, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy who have all secured major championship wins in recent years and have been lobbying on behalf of the course.

"I think their [Clarke, McDowell and McIlroy] performances on the golf course and the staging of the Irish Open here was something of an eye-opener in terms of just the strength of the fan base for golf in Northern Ireland and Ireland altogether," added Dawson.

"I think that certainly was part of it, as well as the wonderful golf course here and the great support and welcome we have been receiving from the Northern Ireland Executive and the club.

"So it's a lot of things coming together."

The 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush attracted huge crowds and was hailed as a big success ©Getty Images The 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush attracted huge crowds and was hailed as a big success ©Getty Images

Dawson dismissed any suggestions that there are fears over security given the history of political and sectarian trouble in Northern Ireland.

That was echoed by Northern Ireland First Minister, Peter Robinson who insisted that the current "peace and stability" in the province has led to the return of the Open Championship.

"These men wouldn't have dreamed of coming here 20 years ago," Robinson said of the Royal and Ancient.

"This is a new Northern Ireland in the new era and it provides people with a view of what normality looks like."

Today's announcement comes after the European Tour confirmed in April that Northern Ireland is also set to host the Irish Open again in 2015 at Royal County Down and at the Lough Erne Resort in County Fermanagh in 2017.

This year's Open Championship is due take place at Royal Liverpool, Hoylake, from July 17 to 20.

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