After 68 years, Northern Ireland rejoices as Open begins

V Krishnaswamy Portrush | Updated on July 19, 2019 Published on July 19, 2019

Graeme McDowell   -  Reuters

This is despite golfing misfortunes of favourite sons in first round

The Open has begun and Northern Ireland is rejoicing despite the golfing misfortunes of its favourite sons in the first round.

The country is celebrating the return of golf and peace.

The Open to Royal Portrush

It took 68 years till the Open finally made a come back with Darren Clarke signalling the return with a tee shot at 6.35 am and rounded of the hole with the 148th Open’s first birdie on Thursday morning. This was the first birdie in an Open at Portrush since 1951.

The Open has already been a sell-out and the crowds, already the second largest ever, at 237,000, could be inching towards a possible record.

Due to a lot of political problems, about which reams have been written in the past and during which many precious lives had been lost, Northern Ireland was not an ideal venue. It was not a safe place for a sporting event till a decade or less ago. Portrush did not figure in conversations about The Open, unless one talked about 1951.

Graeme McDowell, when asked about whether he ever thought that The Open would come back to Portrush, summed it up saying said, “Yeah, I mean, I suppose as a kid I never really thought about it. I never really thought about the reasons why. I mean, the obvious political struggles that we had in the 1970s, '80s, '90s, I was too young to really grasp the magnitude and the reasons and be able to comprehend what the solutions were back in those days. But when I eventually got out here on Tour and started spending time at Open Championship venues and got familiar enough with Peter Dawson to be able to kind of give him a little bit of a ribbing. It started off as a joke – why can’t we go back to Portrush? Myself and Darren and Rory, especially. And the reasons were: infrastructure, this and that and the other.When the ball really started to get rolling was when Padraig won his three majors. Then I won and Rory and Darren picked up a major each, as well. The jokes turned kind of serious.”

Clarke, when asked about the first time he had begun thinking that an Open in Northern Ireland was possible, said, “Probably, I think it was the whole time. It was around 2011. It was after I won The Open, and probably all the stuff Padraig had done before that. Northern Ireland was, and still is, thankfully, where the peace process was well and truly down the line and it became -- at that stage it was a possibility. But we didn't really think it was going to happen. But as things transpired, The R&A were very kind to us.”

Padraig Harrington from Ireland had won Opens in 2007 and 2008 and the 2008 PGA, too. Then started the Northern Ireland spree of victories - Graeme McDowell’s US Open in 2010 followed by Rory McIlroy’s US Open in 2011 and Clarke’s stunning triumph in 2011 Open. All that brought back Northern Ireland, and more specifically Portrush, which had hosted the event back in 1951 into the frame.

The Irish Open came to Portrush in 2012 and that came after 65 years. Interestingly, India’s own Jeev Milkha Singh had a share of the lead after the first day and before the tournament the Indian legend was presented by a 21-year-old bottle of the famous Irish Bushmills whisky.

The Irish Open was a massive success. Added McDowell, “At the Irish Open in 2012 we broke the European Tour attendance record. The R&A couldn’t ignore the fact that this could be a commercial success. The jokes became very serious. It was like: ‘We can do this, we can pull it off.’” Dawson, then a pivotal figure at the R&A, too, played his role and here it is – The 148th Open at Royal Porttush after a gap of 68 years.

Setting the ball rolling

As the time for the Open at Portrush in 2019 neared, McDowell found himself out of the frame. His place was no longer an automatic; he was out of Top-100. He did play the 2019 US Open at Pebble Beach, but that was on the strength of his win in 2010. Languishing beyond the 100-mark in world rankings and with no exemption to the Open he wanted to play most, McDowell sneaked in by grabbing one the Open berths that was available at the Canadian Open on the PGA Tour in June and barely six weeks before the Open at home.

Alongside Harrington, the Northern Ireland trio, too, was in – Clarke, McIlroy and McDowell.

On Thursday Clarke set the ball rolling, teeing off at the crack of dawn, or well almost, in perfect conditions. He opened with a fine shot and rounded it off with the tournament’s first birdie. Clarke ended the round at an even par 71 with four birdies and four bogeys.

He said, “It's huge. But it's not me. I think Rory summed it up perfectly: The Open wasn't about him; it was about how far our country has come. How far it's moved forward. The economic benefits of what this tournament is going to bring, not just this week, but the legacy going forward, what it's going to bring to the country.”

He summed his first round, saying, “This was a good one. Even walking up the 18th green there when everyone was roaring. Last time I did that was 2011 on the 72nd hole. It was fabulous.

“It's obviously not just me. It's Rory, G-Mac, all that sort of stuff. But I think to see all the people coming here, to see how much -- they put their arms around it, it's fabulous.”

Clarke was three-under at one stage and right on top of the leaderboard for a short while, but ended even par 71. McDowell was also three-under after 14 but finished with two bogeys and a triple on 18th to end at 2-over. And what of McIlroy, a heavy favourite before the start and one who had never finished outside Top-5 at the Open since 2014 – he faltered with a quadruple bogey for a dreaded snowman ‘8’ on the first and ended the round with a triple bogey for eight-over 79.

Published on July 19, 2019
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