Royal Portrush, N. Ireland (AP) – Graeme McDowell winning the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach was a source of pride for Northern Ireland. Rory McIlroy winning the U.S. Open at Congressional the following year with a record score was a source of hope.
And then a month later, Darren Clarke became the first Ulsterman in 64 years to raise the silver claret jug.
In a span of six majors, three champions came from a small country in the United Kingdom known for its castles, coastal links and three decades of religious and political violence known as “The Troubles.”
What began as a question — “Could the British Open return to Royal Portrush?” — became a drumbeat until organizers found a way to make it work.
Golf’s oldest championship returns to the Dunluce Links of Royal Portrush this week for the first time since 1951, the only occasion in 159 years that the British Open was not held in Scotland or England. The response has been a combination of excitement and mystery.
The championship was a sellout 11 months ahead of time. The Royal & Ancient Golf Club decided in April to provide an additional 15,000 tickets for tournament days, and those were snatched up quickly. That means more than 200,000 spectators for the competition days of the 148th Open. And that should come as no surprise. Royal Portrush hosted the Irish Open in 2012 and drew 112,000 fans over four days, a European Tour record.
“I believe big-time sport needs big-time crowds,” R&A chief Martin Slumbers said. “We’re certainly going to get that.”
And what will they see? That’s the mystery.
The vast majority of the 156-man field — only 21 players were at the 2012 Irish Open — will be competing on the Harry Colt design for the first time. That included Francesco Molinari, the defending champion who will try to become the first back-to-back winner since Padraig Harrington in 2007-08.
There have been a few changes. To make it a large enough stage for the British Open, the R&A with approval from the club changed the routing. Martin Ebert, who consults on a half-dozen links in the Open rotation, took land from the Valley Links to build two new holes, Nos. 7 and 8. The original 17th and 18th holes are now used for the tented village. The nature of the links hasn’t changed.
There are fewer bunkers than at most links courses because the contours and cliffs and dunes serve as a reasonable defense. The 16th hole is “Calamity Corner,” where a shot over the ravine on the 236-yard par 3 that falls to the right could wind up 50 feet below the green.
Ebert was profuse with his praise of Royal Portrush.
“It’s hard to argue that this will be the finest piece of links land which The Open Championship is played,” Ebert said in 2014 when the R&A announced a return to Portrush. “No other venue, I don’t think, has such pure links undulations throughout its 18 holes.”
For local favourite Rory McIlroy the pressure might be greater than going for the career Grand Slam at the Masters. He grew up in Holywood, but Royal Portrush feels like home. McIlroy was 16 when he set the course record of 61 at the North of Ireland Amateur.
“I think one of the big things for me is to enjoy the experience,” he said. “It might be 68 years until Portrush gets the Open (again), so I have to go out and enjoy it.”