Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Irish Open: Highlight? It was always going to be Rory McIlroy

Some 130,000 excited golf fans descended on Royal Portrush to make the Irish Open a tremendous success. Jonathan McCambridge joined them for a day of rain and star player spotting...

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy plays on the 17th during day four of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club, Portrush
FLASHBACK TO 2012: Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy plays on the 17th during day four of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club, Portrush

A day out at Barry's was never like this. Portrush was transformed, for a few days at least, from a seasonal seaside day trip location to the headquarters of European golf, and it didn't look a bit out of place.

I started planning our weekend visit well in advance.

“We'll have to go early, the traffic's going to be fierce,” I knowingly warned my wife, with visions of meeting the horrendous snaking line of cars just a few miles north of Belfast and spending the whole day in gridlock hell hearing the far distant roars as Rory sank another putt but never quite making it to see him in person.

At one point I think I suggested leaving Belfast the night before to get there on time but was quickly shushed.

As it turned out I needn't have worried. The organisation of traffic was superb and we made it all the way to the north coast without any delay. Stout police officers with rain dripping from their hats efficiently marshalled the large volume of cars which ensured I was pulling into the car park at Kelly's Nightclub opposite Royal Portrush less than two hours after leaving my house in Belfast. Those who argue that Northern Ireland doesn't have the infrastructure to host a Major championship take note.

Not having to worry at all about traffic were our star players who had spaces reserved just yards from the first tee.

I have never seen people gathering to gape at empty parking spaces before but the signs which read “Reserved for Rory McIlroy” and “Reserved for Graeme McDowell” drew a curious crowd. A helicopter regularly took off and landed on the course, suggesting many players found an even more effective way to beat the traffic.

The big talking point of the weekend was the weather.

“Shame about the rain” became the regular greeting for everybody you met. For hours it fairly lashed down, first vertically and later horizontally as if to defy the myriad rainbow of umbrellas on every part of the course.

I had much admiration for the brave souls who arrived early to get a place on the grandstand on the 18th green, their only protection from the driving rain a flimsy blue plastic mac. Most of them didn't leave their seats all day long.

Some of the continental players looked like they would rather be anywhere than Royal Portrush as they finished their rounds thoroughly soaked and making little impression on the leader board. US star John Daly almost ran to take his putt on the last so he could get off the course to a warmer and drier location. Welcome to summer on the north coast.

Having given up trying to follow the mysterious logic of the giant scoreboard on the final fairway we were reduced to straining our eyes through the rain to see who was coming next.

“That looks like Clarke,” went the whisper as a portly figure strode the fairway. Next he was seen lighting a fag. “Oh, it's definitely Darren.”

Golf is a game dominated by numbers, scores and statistics and true fans carry a frightening amount of information around in their heads. Some examples of conversational ice breakers. “He is seventh of the European tour for greens in regulation.”

“He only took 28 putts.”

At one point I heard a man say “Another birdie for Bourdet from Bordeaux” and he didn't even crack a smile.

I spoke to one couple who had travelled from New York.

“We wouldn't have missed this for anything,” they said.

In the Irish Open pavilion the whisper went round that the senior figures from the European Tour were delighted with Portrush, leading to increased certainty, as more pints were sunk, that it is only a matter of time before The Open Championship itself returns to these shores.

The pavilion was also the place where the politicians hung out. But Paisley jnr, Attwood, Kennedy, Foster and Ni Chuilin were massively overshadowed by the presence of The Open and The Ryder Cup trophies which proved much more popular for commemorative photos.

The highlight of the day was always going to be Rory. Never mind that he was not in contention, just the opportunity to watch his cocky amble up the fairway brought the crowds flocking to the last hole. The brilliant white of his trousers confirms that he is destined for greatness. Only a true genius could keep trousers this white on such a filthy day.

Leaving the course provided the only irritant on a memorable occasion. An over-eager course official refused to let a large crowd walk a distance of about 10 yards to the exit because, as he kept insisting, a vehicle was supposed to come through.

After 15 minutes of waiting, G-Mac passed by looking sheepish on a golf buggy and we were finally allowed to leave.

Now bring on The Open.

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