Graeme McDowell’s barrel chest looked fit to burst with pride as he cast his eye across the crowded links at Royal Portrush and savoured an occasion he’d long dreamed would come to his home town.
All of Ireland believes The Open should someday return to this mystic corner of Ulster’s Causeway Coast and the atmosphere so far this week on the Dunluce Links certainly has been reminiscent of golf’s oldest and biggest major.
Today more than 27,000 people are packing Portrush for the opening round of the first event in European Tour history to sell-out for all four days.
Even in its halcyon days at Portrmarnock, Royal Dublin and Woodbrook, the Irish Open never witnessed anything like this there is an overwhelming sense that we are at the dawn of a new era in this august event.
The figures are mind-boggling.
Add several thousand ‘juniors’, who are admitted free, to that daily total; factor-in the 25,000-plus who’ve watched the Tour stars practice so far this week (14,225 ‘daily’ tickets were sold yesterday and an undetermined number of season-ticket holders turned up) and aggregate figures will approach 150,000.
With Ulster’s appetite for the first Irish Open on their soil since 1953 whetted by the Major Championship feats of their favourite golfing sons, McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, this tournament will boast the best-ever attendance at a golf event in Europe, outside of The Open.
The scale of the public’s response to this event is best measured against the figures for the BMW PGA Championship, which attracted a crowd of 85,542 over four days of tournament play at Wentworth — 108,000 have paid to watch the four rounds here.
It was stunning yesterday to see crowds up to six deep and over lining the fairway ropes as McIlroy, McDowell, Clarke, Padraig Harrington among others passed during the Pro-Am.
The perfect golfing storm has descended on Portrush and at its epicentre is McDowell.
However, if the local-boy-done-good is to give his friends and family even more cheer, he is going to have to produce some of the famous graft that has served him so well in the past.
Few players are better equipped for grinding out results than McDowell, as he proved in victory at the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach and that match-clincher at the Ryder Cup in Celtic Manor.
He’ll need every ounce of his mental strength to propel himself into contention — it’s just as well McDowell has been able to rely on his mum, Marian’s, home cooking as he girds himself for one of the greatest challenges of his career.
Mrs McDowell had an Ulster fry waiting on the kitchen table when her son and his partner, Kristen Stape arrived back from the US.
“You know, when I got here on Monday morning, just driving down to the golf course, I got a great sense of pride to see this great event here,” said McDowell. “Growing up in Portrush you dream of having a big-type event here and it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work from a lot of people.
“We joke about the Irish Open being the fifth major but any Irish player would be very proud to have it on his CV. To win in front of your home fans is a very special thing and it’s exaggerated even more this week in my home town and on a golf course I’ve grown up on and feel I know very well.
“There’s added pressure so I have to get on the right side emotionally this week. I’ve got to get my focus, my business edge, right from the word go because if I don’t, it’d be very easy just to enjoy the craic.”