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Irish Open: Stage set for the most triumphant of homecomings then our Rory fluffs his lines

By Ivan Little

The trademark smiles and the witty one-liners from 24 hours earlier had vanished like the early sun over the Mourne mountains.

A pensive Rory McIlroy slipped quietly away from Royal County Down golf course in his £140,000 Overfinch car after his over-par nightmare at the Irish Open in Newcastle.

He tried to put a brave face on it but the mood of the world's top golfer must have been as black as his Range Rover's bodywork and windows as he set off on the short journey to the Slieve Donard hotel after his disastrous round of 80 at the tournament he's hosting for his charitable foundation.

Rory's worst performance in five years was anything but a happy homecoming for the Holywood man on a day when rumours swept the seaside resort that a Hollywood superstar was threatening to steal the celebrity show from Rory.

Yet it wasn't immediately clear why Ocean's Eleven heart-throb George Clooney would be strolling around Newcastle in his shorts and sporting a beard that wasn't even stubble on recent TV appearances or why he wasn't besieged by fans.

Mind you, the social media speculation also had Ant and Dec, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and his hairdryer pal Sir Alex Ferguson at the Open with only Elvis Presley missing from the VIP guest list.

The rumour mill had also sent panic through the upwards of 20,000 golf fans travelling to the first Irish Open in Newcastle in 76 years fearing traffic jams of monstrous proportions.

One radio station even broadcast an appeal for non-golf fans to stay out of Newcastle in order to bypass the anticipated chaos.

But the journey from Belfast to Newcastle was like a Rory McIlroy drive. On a good day.

Even Ballynahinch which can be a roadblock waiting to happen at the quietest of times was negotiated faster than a Jeremy Clarkson right hook.

And inventive Orangemen in Dundrum who thought they spied the potential for making one or two of their Sovereign's coins and banknotes were disappointed.

From early morning two men stood outside the Evelyn Downshire Memorial Hall waiting for motorists to avail of their car parking and the promise of a bus into Newcastle.

But not an inch of their space was taken up and a few hours later the two men had shut the gates and had taken their car parking sign with them. Orangeman Danny Kennedy was in Newcastle but wearing his Transport Minister's hat, not his bowler.

He looked on as Ulster's talented triumvirate of golfers, Rory, Darren and Graeme -their surnames are superfluous - found themselves among the first to tee off.

The Royal County Down course was picture postcard perfection with the towering Mournes bathed in early morning sunshine which made an idyllic backdrop for the live TV cameras.

If Mr Kennedy was concerned about the future of his job or the Executive at Stormont he wasn't showing it, preferring instead to praise the police and his transport officials for getting golf fans to Newcastle with so little hassle.

"Everything seems to have been running very smoothly," he said.

"There's been a huge amount of work carried out to make sure the transport management system worked well.

"We learnt a lot of lessons from the Open in Portrush two years ago and the free Park and Ride scheme has helped immensely.

"If people obey the advice from the police and Translink it should be a really enjoyable experience for everyone for the whole week. But we are not complacent and we need everyone to co-operate and play their part."

Mr Kennedy, who said he plays golf badly, liked what he saw as he watched the Ulstermen start their Open campaigns.

"All three of them are very impressive ambassadors for Northern Ireland and we are so hugely blessed to have them."

More than 300 fans were waiting from 6am for the entrances to the Open to open for the first day's play which like the other three sessions this week was sold out.

Championship director of the European Tour, Antonia Beggs, was at Royal County Down early to marvel at the enthusiasm of the fans.

She said: "They really are astonishing. And the glorious weather at the outset showed Royal County Down off in all its splendour for the TV pictures which will be going into 400 million homes around the globe.

"My husband is from Co Meath and he's always been a fan of Royal County Down which is one of our hallowed courses. So hopefully the good weather will hold up."

Almost inevitably, it didn't and the rain which threatened to wash out yesterday's pro-am returned with a vengeance along with a nasty wind that tested the mettle of all the golfers, especially Rory McIlroy.

Frank and Pauline Steele from Belfast were among the first to arrive after a quicker than expected journey and went straight to the tee to see their local heroes.

The couple who used to be fanatical football fans are now totally hooked on golf but neither plays the game.

Frank said: "Golf is the simplest game in the world but it's the hardest one to learn properly. It's like throwing a jigsaw puzzle in the air expecting it to come down in the same order."

On the stroke of 8am, Rory McIlroy strolled onto the 10th tee to play the back nine at Royal County Down first.

The welcome for McDowell and Clark was effusive but for McIlroy it was explosive as hundreds of fans seemed to suddenly appear from nowhere.

American-born but Ulster-based Rory fan Michelle Page has seen him in all his glory across the world and had high hopes for him on what she said she believes is the best golf course in the world. The family of her friend Trina Barr saw Rory growing up, never imagining that he would mature into the world number one.

Trina said: "My mother Irene McKillen was the lady captain of Holywood Golf Club and remembers seeing Rory from when he was a five-year-old with his plastic clubs. It's great to see what he's become and what he's done for his charity."

Trina said Rory was one of the first golfers to sign a flag for the Rosie's Trust animal charity in Bangor.

"I only have a few more dozen autographs to go now," she laughed.

But there was little to laugh about as Rory's day went from bad to worse to downright appalling. A number of his fans watched in disbelief.

"He just hasn't been able to cope with the wind," said Peter Anderson from Dunmurry.

"But trust me he'll be back. He just has to make the cut."

Rory himself vowed to do better, not just for himself and for his fans but also for his Rory Foundation to whom he has pledged his winnings, whatever they might be.

"Nothing went right," he said. And no one argued with him.

Rory isn't the only one in Newcastle facing a sharp decline in his income.

The promised influx of golf fans into the rejuvenated town centre didn't materialise, much to the disappointment of four new businesses which have opened to cope with the extra crowds that didn't come.

The promenade was largely deserted throughout the day with day-trippers hardly tripping over themselves to get to Newcastle and on-street parking spaces which are normally so difficult to locate were easy to find.

The reality was that visitors were in more danger of being knocked down by council cleaning vehicles than by cars, though the streets looked remarkably clean in the first place.

The Shetland ponies offering kiddies' rides on the beach never had life so easy.

Outside the visitors' centre in the heart of Newcastle, several dozen deckchairs had been laid out so that people without Open tickets could watch the action on a big screen.

The seats were empty for most of the day.

Inside the centre, artist Patsy Forsythe was having an exhibition, but there were few people to admire his work.

"It's been like Christmas morning," said Patsy.

"The place is deserted. I feel sorry for the shops and cafes. There's no one in them."

At his usually busy Olive Bizarre café at the far end of town, John Gribben felt let down.

"We were told it would all be different from Portrush in 2012 when golf fans weren't allowed out of the golf course to go into the town, but here spectators have been ushered out of Royal County Down towards their cars and away again."

Mr Gribben added that their 'bread and butter' of local people seemed to have been scared off from going out by what he called the "scaremongering" of local authorities and the media.

"My only hope is that the Open will have a positive long term impact on the town in that people who see what we have to offer will visit us."

As he spoke there was news that Barack Obama, Ant and Dec and Tiger Woods had just been spotted in the centre of Newcastle, though the truth was that the stories seemed more credible than Rory McIlroy's scorecard just down the street.

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