Irish Open: Rory McIlroy and superstar pals are on course for great week
They're calling him the Pied Putter. Ulster's golfing sensation Rory McIlroy not only lured a glittering galaxy of stars from his own sport to the Irish Open in Newcastle yesterday, but also managed to attract the biggest hitters in the business and entertainment worlds to Royal County Down.
Thousands of Rory's besotted - and bedraggled - fans defied the rain, the cold and the wind to see their hero take part in a pro-am
But unlike the Pied Piper in the fable, Rory wasn't out to get money - he was vowing to give it away.
The World's Number One on the golf course showed he was a top man off it, too, by pledging to donate anything he wins at this week's Open to charity.
And if - as the bookies expect - the Holywood wizard emerges victorious, his Rory Foundation, which is hosting the four-day tournament, will pocket nearly £300,000.
And that's something Rory is determined to ensure happens.
One charity hoping he's a winner is the Cancer Fund for Children's Daisy Lodge respite centre near Newcastle.
Set in the foothills of the majestic Mourne Mountains, it is in line for the major part of the prize-money.
Yesterday Rory said: "I'm not really playing for myself this week. I just hope we can raise as much money as we can
"I am playing for a lot of other people and it gives me an incentive to go out there and enjoy it and try to play well."
In the pro-am yesterday, three Americans - Billy Rosenthal Fred Carillo and Tom Iovino - played alongside Rory after an auction at Daisy Lodge on Monday night. More than $160,000 was bid for the privilege of partnering the Open champion.
Yesterday, Rory revealed that he himself had started the bidding ball rolling "because it was going too slowly for my liking".
He added: "I put my hand up and said I would pay a hundred grand to play by myself. But there were a few billionaires in the room and that got their hands in their pockets."
Also taking part in the pro-am was a veritable who's who of famous faces that had spectators' heads spinning as they tried to keep up with the celebrity spotting.
Another Ulster sporting legend, retired champion jockey AP McCoy, was warmly welcomed by the Newcastle galleries. And he was clearly hoping to pick up a few tips along the way after revealing that he plans to spend a lot of the next 12 months playing golf before going to work for his old boss, JP McManus.
"I'm generally happy with the way I am striking the ball and playing off 14," said the Moneyglass man who teamed up with US golfer Ricky Fowler and comedian Patrick Kielty in the pro-am.
Kielty, from Dundrum, joked that any wayward shots from him could hit his own house just around the corner. And he also said it was good to see an Orangeman like Rickie Fowler playing Royal County Down, a nod to the American's penchant for playing in orange at tournaments.
One of Australia's greatest ever cricketers, Shane Warne, played alongside Darren Clarke, rugby star Stephen Ferris and BBC sports presenter Stephen Watson.
Warne said he was blown away by the chance to play one of the world's best golf courses.
Dublin snooker ace Ken Doherty appeared as much at ease on the golfing greens as on the green baize. "This is a magnificent course which I have always wanted to play. It's very special," he said.
Actor Jimmy Nesbitt was filming in London but flew into Northern Ireland especially to play alongside Ernie Els and Ulster Rugby's Paddy Wallace after insisting that he needed the day off from commitments in front of the camera.
Nesbitt said he didn't have to be asked twice to play for Rory.
"I am enormously proud of him and to be here is an absolute thrill and privilege. The work Rory has done with such commitment and passion for the Foundation is staggering, especially for someone so young. For me, however, this is all very nerve-racking. Acting is easy, golf is hard."
Antonia Beggs, championship director of the European Tour, said such a star-studded field would never have played in the Irish Open if it hadn't been for Rory, as well as our other golfing greats, Graeme McDowell and Clarke.
And yesterday evening she disclosed that all four days of the Open had now been sold out - a total of 80,000 tickets.
The CEO of the Rory Foundation Barry Funston said McIlroy was proud of his charity work and assisting people less fortunate than himself, including ones helped by Mencap.
Fellow US Open winning star McDowell paid a warm tribute to his friend and Ryder Cup colleague for boosting charities and for elevating the Irish Open "back to one of the premier events on the European Tour".
Ironically, McIlroy's superstar factor could scarcely have been better illustrated than by the reaction inside the media centre.
It was half full for McDowell's Press conference but barely had a free seat left as Rory McIlroy walked in shortly afterwards, laughing and wise-cracking with journalists.
Away from the hard-bitten hacks, the fans were jostling for autographs and photographs.
Zeeola Moore and Rachael Reid, who are employees of Zen orthodontics practice in Newry, were all smiles as they rhymed off an impressive list of celebs who posed for their selfies - McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Clarke, Jamie Donaldson, McCoy, Dennis Taylor, Pat Jennings and Padraig Harrington.
"They were all lovely" said Zeeola. The star of the week eluded them, however.
The 20-strong P6 class of Fairview Primary School in Ballyclare were more successful.
The children won a European Tour competition to visit the Open pro-am and some of them were lucky enough to get autographs from Rory, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald.
"They've been excited to get so close to so many of the stars" said Sharon Maguire, a mother who was helping to look after the children.
Nearby, in the tented village, one of the most popular stands was the Tourism Northern Ireland exhibition - although for all the wrong reasons.
Dozens took shelter under its canvas as the rain got heavier yesterday afternoon and the Mournes became shrouded in cloud.
The NITB rain macs became a must-have for visitors including Tim Fernandes-Bonnar who had travelled from Croydon with his wife Yvonne and their children Danny (11) and Cuan (8).
"It's a pity the weather has turned but I just hope it improves tomorrow to show the scenery at its best on the television," said Tim.
One man who didn't have as far to travel for the Open was Pat Rooney, who lives 20 yards from the entrance to Royal County Down.
"I was thinking about renting the house out for the duration of the tournament but the wife wouldn't let me," said Pat as he watched the heavens open at the Open. "I'd wanted to go to Portugal."
The weather on the Algarve might have been better but one Rory fan who laughed off the Down deluge was 17-year-old Tara McComb, who proudly showed off her idol's autograph.
She said: "He was just walking off one of the greens and I held out my book and he signed it. I was delighted."
The last word on Rory McIlroy's big day went to his biggest fan, his father Gerry, who played in the pro-am on a Rory Foundation team with English golfer Oliver Wilson.
"I had a great time but it was a bit cold for me," he said.
With tongue in cheek, I asked Mr McIlroy if he thought his son would ever progress in the game.
With a wink he replied: "He might, you never know…"