On Thursday, at the bleary hour of 6.35 in the morning, Darren Clarke created history. The popular Ulster golfer teed up the first shot at the 148th Open Championship, which, for the second time, is being hosted at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland on its famous Dunluce Links course.
The sport’s oldest and most prestigious tournament has been staged only twice outside Scotland or England. And the Open’s previous visit to Ulster was 68 years ago, in 1951, long before it involved thousands of international visitors, a field of 159 players and wall-to-wall television coverage.
Significantly, that competition also took place nearly two decades before the start of the Troubles. Not many golf tournaments are weighted with such a sense of history, as correspondents try to link its arrival in Ulster with politics, the peace process and a lingering trace of cordite.
In the newspaper USA Today the broadcaster, Eamon Lynch, who comes from Northern Ireland and should know better, described Clarke as “the first Northern Irishman to fire a shot here and have it universally welcomed”. He treats American readers to a series of grim clichés about a “benighted province” with “a slightly sinister air” and “the fresh pall of gunpowder”.
References of this kind are probably inevitable and, admittedly, hint at a truth.
Northern Ireland was not in the running for major events, sporting or otherwise, before 1998. The Good Friday Agreement was followed by relative normality and attracted international goodwill that delivered big occasions like the Giro d’Italia cycling race, the Irish golf championships and the G8 summit.
It’s hard to resist using the Open as a symbol of Northern Ireland’s transformation from troubled hotspot to the home of major-winning golfers and Game of Thrones. Yet, though it’s both a novelty and a good news story to have Portrush stage the tournament, it is also the venue on merit.
The Dunluce Links immediately joined the top tier of courses on the Open roster. It was redesigned significantly to accommodate the international media, with the rather pedestrian 17th and 18th replaced by two new holes, now the 7th and 8th, built on the adjacent Valley Course.
The world’s top golfers are praising Royal Portrush in glowing terms. After playing a practice round, Tiger Woods described the links as ‘wonderful’ and ‘unbelievable’. Tom Watson, a five time Open winner, expressed his love for the place. Rory McIlroy, who admittedly may be a little biased, said that the course looked ‘spectacular’.
Golf is played in some scenic places but, even so, Royal Portrush is pretty special. The Antrim coast road hugs the Atlantic Ocean as it meets a landscape of castles, cliffs and causeways, and the links lies behind a curve on that highway. If you drive west from Portballintrae to Portrush, you encounter the course suddenly in panorama, with its folds of green and gorse, hard against the steep dunes and empty sands of the White Rocks beach.
On a still, sunny day, it is a picture of rugged beauty, but players will worry that the weather will not be so kind. In blustery conditions, the Dunluce Links is a turbulent, unpredictable place, as banks of rain skid in suddenly from the sea.
In these circumstances, golfers who specialise in seaside golf will expect to flourish, whereas players who prefer high, targeted shots to tranquil greens and manicured fairways may struggle.
In fact, it could have been ideal for Darren Clarke, the Dungannon man who owns a house overlooking the Portrush links. He’s one member of Northern Ireland’s acclaimed triumvirate of major winners, alongside Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.
McIlroy, who set the course record at Portrush as an amateur player, was the most successful of the three and the bookies made him pre-tournament favourite, but he had a nightmare first round. Clarke is the links specialist, who won his only Open championship in squally showers at Royal St George’s in 2011. After hitting the opening shot, he took an early lead, though his round stuttered and he finished at even par.
The home crowds roared on the Ulster players, but top US golfers like Woods, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka were tipped heavily. England’s Justin Rose and Jon Rahm, the Spaniard who makes a habit of winning Irish Open championships on Northern Ireland’s North Coast, are now among the leading contenders.
While there are few doubts that the Dunluce course will be a fine backdrop against which to test the golfers’ skills, Portrush and the wider North Coast area have been spruced up to provide a fitting welcome for spectators. The town has a brand new train station, ready to receive an influx of special trains from Belfast and Londonderry, scheduled for the tournament. Causeway Coast and Glens council claims that £17.5 million has been invested in improving the area for the event.
The tournament’s governing body, the Royal and Ancient, has indicated that Portrush is likely to hold further Open championships “for many years to come”. 237,000 tickets have been sold, ensuring that the attendance will be the second highest in the tournament’s history, so the event can already claim some success.
Before the weekend is out, the worldwide audience watching on TV is likely to see excitement, elation and not a few golf umbrellas. It will be a dramatic enough story without loading it with allusions to Northern Ireland’s troubled history.