Belfast Telegraph

Irish Open: Portstewart awash with major figures of sport, business and film world

By Ivan Little

They've portrayed two ruthless Ulster killers on television, but Jimmy Nesbitt and Jamie Dornan cast aside their roles as villains to play the good guys yesterday. The duo helped Rory McIlroy with his life-saving act for the once-ailing Irish Open golf tournament.

Nesbitt - who gained acclaim for his role as double killer Colin Howell in The Secret - and Jamie Dornan - who played murderer Paul Spector in The Fall - were the stars in a charity Pro-Am curtain-raiser for the Irish Open which Rory's foundation hosted in Portstewart.

But on the first tee, there were gasps from Nesbitt and grimaces from Dornan, who were partnered with Major winner Justin Rose. This was an indication to the hordes of fans thronging the fairways that all might not be well in the real world.

A number of shots went astray but that wasn't the biggest ordeal for Dornan, who has gained sex symbol status after his big screen appearances in the steamy Fifty Shades of Grey films.

He seemed to turn a 51st shade as young girls let him know they were interested in more than his golf swing.

And he admitted: "I'm bewildered by all of this. They were shouting out even when I was hitting dreadful shots.

"I've played in front of big galleries before but nothing like the one here in Portstewart."

Nesbitt joked that the girls were screaming for him, but the recently-admitted member of Royal Portrush Golf Club said the day had made him even more proud to come from the north coast.

Rory attracted even larger galleries as he was joined by a veritable rich list of big hitters for his outing.

Money was no object for any of Rory's partners in his unusual five balls line-up.

They included horse racing magnate JP McManus; businessman Dermot Desmond; Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and retired jockey AP McCoy, who, like the golfer, are millionaires many times over.

Desmond, who's the largest individual shareholder in Celtic Football Club, was looking forward to next week's European game against Linfield down the road in Belfast.

He praised David Healy for the work he had done with the Blues but he was even more complimentary about the tactical skills of Carnlough man Brendan Rodgers, who manages the Hoops.

Pep Guardiola, who repeatedly smiled as Manchester United fans bantered him, spoke of his admiration for Rory and his foundation, but said he hadn't tried to convert the fanatical red to the blue cause.

Rory set aside the football rivalry to praise Pep's golfing skills as the sun shone down on the spectacular Portstewart course overlooking the Atlantic and the deserted strand, from which cars had been banned by police.

Rory had driven himself to Portstewart from his home in Holywood.

In the car park he immediately button-holed another golfing great, Ian Poulter, to say thanks for coming to the event, which the Rory Foundation has transformed into one of Europe's top tournaments. Just a few years ago the Irish Open appeared to be on the road to nowhere.

It didn't have a sponsor and few top class players were interested in playing because there wasn't enough money on offer.

But Rory changed all that by getting Dubai Duty Free on board. The prize money of $7m (£5.4m) has lured old favourites and new kids on the block - such as fast-emerging Spanish sensation Jon Rahm - as well as Englishmen Tommy Fleetwood and Danny Willett, who had his stag do on the north coast a while back. Among the other celebrities playing with nine Major winners and a host of well-known golfers were sporting legends Pat Jennings, Dennis Taylor and Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill.

O'Neill said: "What Rory has done for the Irish Open is phenomenal. I haven't played for a while but I am absolutely thrilled to be here."

Another former Northern Ireland and Man United star Harry Gregg earned the adulation of Rory McIlroy without hitting a ball. Harry (85), who was the hero of the Munich air disaster in 1958, slipped quietly into Portstewart to thank Rory personally for making his foundation one of the main beneficiaries of the proceeds from the Irish Open.

Harry told the Belfast Telegraph: "I'm incredibly proud to have Rory backing my foundation. He's a fantastic young man and the money we receive will mean an awful lot to the people that we help."

Rory said: "Harry Gregg has been one of the most amazing ambassadors of sport in Northern Ireland.

"We were only too happy to help his foundation."

Looking forward to the Irish Open, Rory said he believed it had the best line-up in years.

He said he desperately wanted to retain the title he won last year at the K Club.

"I dreamt of winning the Irish Open ever since I was a young boy and to hold onto it again north of the border would be even more special."

All around Portstewart, the razzmatazz surrounding the event has been unprecedented.

The slick European Tour machine spent nearly a year getting the already superb Portstewart house in even more impressive order. Yesterday a huge number of liveried European Tour articulated lorries, campers, caravans, generators, hoists and vans were parked wagon-train style just beyond the course.

Greenkeepers Stephen Taylor and William Johnston, who come from nearby Coleraine, were proud of their handiwork.

Stephen said: "We start every day at 4.30am and we won't get away until 9pm. But it's worth it to see everything looking so wonderful."

"Greenkeepers from across the world have joined this massive operation.

"They've come from South Africa, America and down south. It's prestigious for them to say they have worked on an open."

Over 550 volunteers from across the golfing world will be on duty throughout the week.

Martin Woods, Cyril Rafferty and Kevin Mullan who are all members of the Portstewart club were ready for action from morning.

"It's the first time I've ever done anything like this," said Kevin, who's an official with the local GAA club as well. "The duties range from marshalling to scoring and carrying scoreboards."

Among the first fans on the course were Limavady sisters Joyce Jordan and Maud Craig, who are in their 70s, and were enjoying tea and sandwiches as they waited for the Pro-Am to start.

"It's a lovely set-up here. Rory and Darren Clarke are my favourites," said Joyce whose England-based son Gary plays for the Northern Ireland pool team.

Maud only has eyes for Rory: "He's my number one."

It's thought that upwards of 500 million TV viewers will have access to watch the Irish Open.

Tourism officials have their fingers crossed that it'll be love at first sight for everyone who catches sight of the stunning scenery.

Pamela Hayes, who's the visitors' service and administration officer at the Causeway Coast and Glens council, was in Portstewart yesterday.

She said: "We have great destinations and great golf to offer. Our office in Coleraine has been inundated for weeks with inquiries about the Irish Open. Many of our callers have come from north and south of the border.

"But we are hopeful that the TV images will be a major boost. Golf tourism in this part of the world is growing all the time."

Officials have predicted that the golf market here could be worth £50m by 2020. And the fact that the Open Championship is coming to Portrush in 2019 will also be used as a major tourist tool.

During the day there were reports of several mishaps on the course. Officials at the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine confirmed that a woman had been hurt but declined to comment on her injuries.

By the end of the week it's expected that over 100,000 people will have visited the event. "We could get even more if the weather is as good as it was today" said one European Tour source.

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