Belfast Telegraph

Fans jostle for a glimpse of their hero as day one of the Irish Open lives up to all expectations

By Ivan Little

You could scarcely have swung a cat never mind a golf club at the first tee at Portstewart yesterday, as Rory McIlroy started his Dubai Duty Free Irish Open campaign in earnest.

Hundreds of fans jostled for a view as the Holywood hero teed off in his bid to retain the Open title he won last year at the K Club.

Nearly five hours later, the first day of the tournament his Foundation is hosting ended in disappointment for Rory and his supporters as he became one of the few golfers who didn't finish the day below par.

Even so, as he shot his 11th par in a row at the 18th, the now quieter but ever-loyal McIlroyalists still applauded their idol, and Rory responded with a rueful smile and an exhalation of breath.

Along the way, however, the unapologetically biased Irish gallery warmed to two rising stars on the golfing firmament, Hideki Matsuyama (25) from Japan and Spaniard Jon Rahm (22).

The latter's audacious and aggressive shot-play earned him a legion of admirers and almost landed him a share of the lead as the new kids on the block left the 28-year-old Ulsterman an unlikely elder statesman of the trio.

On the 7.10 train from Belfast to Coleraine, scores of golfing aficionados weren't thinking about anyone except Rory.

"He's the man to beat," said Alan Johnston from Finaghy.

Peter Martin and Jim Robinson from Comber said they planned to follow their fellow Co Down man around the 18 holes.

"It's important that he gets off to a good start," said Peter.

At the Open course, the weather had a promising beginning.

But things threatened to go down hill as the clouds rolled in from Downhill to rain on Portstewart's picturesque parade for the Sky TV cameras.

Nothing, however was going to spoil Mo and Mike Giffin's day.

The Coleraine couple, who are stalwarts of Portstewart Golf Club, were celebrating their 41st wedding anniversary.

But they were so busy with their respective volunteer duties at the Open that there was no time to pop any corks.

Instead they had to content themselves with a quick cup of coffee, delaying their big night out until after the tournament - and its late finishes - is over.

Mo, a former ladies captain, is the chief scorer at the Open while Mike has been shuttling all the golfing giants around in a buggy - and has the autographed baseball cap to prove it.

He said: "They are a great bunch of lads. We are not supposed to talk to them on our journeys, but most of them have talked to me."

Later, as the husband and wife team returned to their tasks, they could only look on enviously at the hospitality suites near them where the hospitality was most hospitable. Forty guests from one of the Open's sponsors, the Bank of Ireland, who have been behind a series of golf challenges for youngsters, were partaking of a hearty breakfast after a bus journey from Belfast, and there was no danger of them going hungry.

For their plates were hardly empty before they were tucking into lunch, and just a few hours later they were scoffing afternoon tea.

Corporate hospitality at the Open has been on the menu for dozens of Ulster companies who've willingly paid upwards of £400 for packages.

The movers and shakers didn't include as many politicians as in the past, fitting perhaps for a Stormont administration that can't seem to get itself out of its own particular bunker.

Other potent northern divisions were diplomatically left to one side, however, especially the age-old rivalry between Portrush and Portstewart about which town is top of the Ports.

Even Alan Simpson, the former BBC presenter who champions the Portmagic cause of Portrush, was bigging up Portstewart for the TV cameras.

But he couldn't resist posting a picture on Facebook of McIlroy, Jimmy Nesbitt, Jamie Dornan and Northern Ireland football manager Michael O'Neill enjoying themselves on Wednesday night after the Pro-Am in the Ramore restaurant complex in Portrush. The rush in the opposite direction, to Portstewart, started early yesterday.

Teenage programme seller Rebecca Davey from Castlerock said the buzz was infectious, adding: "It's my first Open and the atmosphere has been electric."

Even 11-year-old Portstewart boy Max Steen was excited - and he's just sampled one of the greatest occasions in world sport in New Zealand.

Max only returned on Tuesday night from a tour with the Ulster under-11s rugby team and he also saw the British and Irish Lions beating the All Blacks last Saturday when he was a flag-bearer.

Max is also a promising golfer, but his 14-year-old sister Amy is a golf fan who took delight in snapping selfies with a gaggle of stars at Portstewart. McIlroy eluded her, however. "A security man stepped in to stop me," she said.

Another early arrival at the Open, Brian Patterson, was still elated after caddying in the Pro-Am for a golfer who played alongside Lee Westwood.

"Lee was in great form with his driving but his short sticks let him down. However, I gave him a few tips about how to improve things," he said.

Westwood must not have been listening, alas.

The Englishman had a disastrous round yesterday, including a horror show at the 14th where he carded an eight. Peter and Sinead Kelly from Articlave enjoyed their day more.

Peter's father Bobby was a professional at Castlerock for 45 years and his son followed in his footsteps to become an assistant pro at Portstewart.

But he said: "I've given that up now, though Sinead and I really love playing golf together and we've been here from the start of the week to see the world's finest players in action."

Portstewart ladies captain Julie Corbett said attendances at the Open appeared to have outstripped even the most optimistic of expectations.

She said: "The crowds have been amazing and records could be broken. We just hope the weather doesn't let us down."

Colin and Amanda Jeffrey, who'd travelled from Londonderry, were attending their third Open in Northern Ireland and were looking forward to seeing Rory McIlroy put his detractors in their place.

Colin said: "I've heard people saying Rory has lost his focus. But to me he's still a star.

"He could retire tomorrow and still look back at a career that most golfers can't even dream about. Rory does an awful lot right."

Not yesterday, he didn't.

And at the sixth hole, a Sky commentator went so far as to say that one of his shots was the worst he'd ever seen him play.

Away from the golf in the heart of Portstewart there was no getting away from the game.

The Sky coverage of the Open was played on a big screen at the end of the promenade yesterday and a handful of people gathered to watch as Graeme McDowell finished five under par on the course where he played as a schoolboy.

Open organisers who stopped people leaving the 2012 event in Portrush, to the annoyance of the town's traders, had learnt lessons from five years ago. Spectators at the Portstewart Open had the option of getting pass-outs, which allowed them to come and go as they pleased.

But early indications were that business was quiet during the tournament itself, though things have apparently improved at night when entertainment was laid on at the Crescent.

Sophie McCloy from the Simply Scrumptious bakery and cafe on the Prom said: "The evenings have been very busy.

"People seem to drift down into the town after the golf is over."

Surprisingly, perhaps, a number of hotels on the north coast still have rooms available for the weekend, but at a price.

One establishment is advertising a double room on Saturday night for £434. A similar room a fortnight later is £119.

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