Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Irish Open: Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell walking tall

PORTRUSH, NORTHERN IRELAND - JUNE 26: Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland chipping under the watchful eye of coach Pete Cowen of England during practice for the 2012 Irish Open held on the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club on June 26, 2012 in Portrush, Northern Ireland. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Darren Clarke was all smiles as he approached the first green. Dressed in black he walked up the hill to the putting surface and then proceeded to give helpful hints to his playing partners.

Local knowledge at places like this can be invaluable.

So, if Englishman Richard Finch or France's Gregory Bourdy win the Irish Open on Sunday, you'll know who they have to thank.

No disrespect to Richard or Gregory, who I'm sure are perfectly decent fellows, but we'd all prefer if Darren was in the mix at the weekend.

It's asking a lot given his injury problems of late, but what a popular victor the Dungannon man would be.

Hey, he surprised us all at Sandwich last year, so you never know.

If you thought the reception he received at Royal St George's when he claimed The Open championship was special, can you imagine what it would be like on the 18th here if he were to finish top of the leaderboard in the town that has become his adopted home?

You'd hear the roars of appreciation in Lytham, where Darren will defend his Open crown next month.

The party would be just as good if Graeme McDowell, Portrush born and bred, was the man lifting the trophy.

G-Mac joined Darren on the back nine yesterday to play a few practice holes. Suffice to say they enjoyed the craic with each other and the galleries.

The US Open runner-up, with charisma oozing out of him, looks to be in top form. Some of the chips he was hitting to the pin on 18 were glorious.

What a week this must be for Clarke and McDowell.

It's like they are welcoming all their pals to a giant homecoming parade.

You really can sense the pride in the pair of them that this year's Irish Open is being played on their patch. There's an extra spring in the step.

Along with Rory McIlroy, they are our golfing giants, but look even taller this week.

On the second tee, after signing a bunch of autographs, Darren, with hands in pockets, surveyed the scene all around him, breathing it in, soaking it up, revelling in the feelgood atmosphere all around.

A couple of booming drives later and the big man had a quick fag before laughing and joking his way down the fairway.

He's the People's Champion alright and has been a huge driving force behind this project.

Let's face it, but for the heroics of Clarke, McDowell and McIlroy the European Tour would not have brought the tournament here.

Now that they have, rest assured it will come again. And, I fancy, The Open too, down the line. Padraig Harrington certainly thinks so.

Outside the Majors and the Ryder Cup, this has turned into the golf event of 2012.

When the Irish Open begins tomorrow, there won't be a spare space to be had. Even today at the Celebrity Pro-Am, with stars of sport and screen pitching and putting all over the Dunluce links, crowds will be huge.

Yesterday on the first official practice day, a remarkable 4280 spectators paid in. You are lucky to get that number on the final afternoon of some Tour events.

All the players have been blown away by the interest. From last year's champion Simon Dyson (pictured) on his first visit, to the great John Daly, and his fluorescent trousers.

World number two McIlroy was out early in the morning and was surprised that so many were around to see him play with good friend Harry Diamond.

Wait until tomorrow Rory when you are alongside USPGA champion Keegan Bradley.

Excitement levels are sky high amongst the fans, many of whom are within touching distance of their heroes and wondering if it isn't all just a dream.

There was one guy yesterday who couldn't believe that Jose Maria Olazabal had just breezed past him. He kept telling his wife who it was. Over and over. And explaining that Olazabal was Seve's partner in the Ryder Cup. Over and over.

It was priceless, but in many ways encapsulates what we've got here this week.

We lapped up the MTV awards with the pop superstars at the Odyssey and the global exposure it brought to Northern Ireland.

This is better. When people all over the world see the television pictures of this magnificent course with all its natural beauty and challenges, such as the outrageous bunker called ‘Big Nellie' on the 17th fairway, it will be the best advert our Tourist Board could hope for.

Plus, unlike Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, guys like Rory and G-Mac are here all week, not for one night only.

Showers might be forecast, but even the rain may not dampen the spirits at Royal Portrush.

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