From Portrush crowds to Tiger Woods: 10 things to look out for at The Open
The Open week has well and truly begun. Here's Brian Keogh's take on what the big talking points could be from Royal Portrush.
1 The opening tee shot
It's a privilege to hit the first shot in The Open, and few would be surprised to see 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke awarded the honour at his adopted home.
His win at Royal St George's in 2011 was the highlight of his career, but to be handed the honour of hitting the first shot in the 148th Open on Thursday would surely come a close second. Des Smyth had the honour in 2002 at Muirfield and shot 68 to lie just a shot off the lead.
With 74 per cent of tickets snapped up by the home fans, most of them from south of the border, this is going to be a spectacle to behold. Around 215,000 will attend The Open, with the daily capacity increased from 40,000 to 43,750 due to the enormous demand.
The 2012 Irish Open set a European Tour record when 126,505 fans packed Royal Portrush in some horrific weather. The Open will be 40pc bigger and louder than that, with 14 grandstands around the course, including a horseshoe-shaped, 4,000-seater stand at the 18th.
3 Calamity Corner
The name says it all. The fearsome, uphill par-three 16th could prove to be the pivotal hole this week. Measuring a formidable 236 yards from the new back tee, players may be forced to take a head-cover off a club to carry a huge ravine and find a green that has no bunkers.
With mounds and hollows to the back and left of the green, including Bobby Locke's Hollow, it's a big target for players who know that anything coming up short or right is a double-bogey waiting to happen. It was ranked the seventh toughest hole for the 2012 Irish Open when it was 26 yards shorter.
4 The Silver Medal
Six amateurs will tee it up at Royal Portrush and Irish fans will be pulling for Mallow's James Sugrue (22), who claimed his place by winning the Amateur Championship at Portmarnock.
Since 1949 the R&A has awarded a silver medal to the leading amateur completing the final round and, since 1972, a bronze to any other amateur who competes in the final round.
Sugrue will be trying to follow in the footsteps of Joe Carr (1956 & '58) and Rory McIlroy (2007) as the leading amateur. Jimmy Bruen tied for 13th in 1939, but the best performance from an Irish amateur in recent years came in 2015 at St Andrews, when Paul Dunne had a share of the lead after 54 holes before finishing tied 30th.
5 Binge TV coverage
Sky Sports first broadcast The Open in 2016 from Royal Troon, winning a BAFTA for its coverage across a dedicated channel which included the first tee shot live for the first time. Live coverage of the championship will run from 6:30am to 8:30pm, followed by another two hours of highlights.
If you don't have Sky, you can watch the tournament through NOW TV, paying a daily, weekly or monthly fee. BBC2 will offer a two-hour highlights package from 8-10pm daily (there's also ball-by-ball commentary on BBC Radio 5 live), while RTE Radio will provide live reports and interviews.
And, of course, keep up with everything on our live blogs every day throughout practice and the tournament.
6 Tiger Woods
Bar the 2010 JP McManus Pro-Am at Adare Manor, the 15-time Major winner hasn't played a competitive round here since he finished ninth in the WGC American Express Championship at Mount Juliet in 2004.
The Masters champion has been getting up at 1am in Florida to acclimatise to the time change his body will undergo for The Open, but having played just 10 tournament rounds since his win at Augusta National, it remains to be seen if he will be sharp enough to contend for a fourth Claret Jug on a course that should still suit his game given the premium Royal Portrush will place on mid-iron play and strategy.
Woods will be making his 21st appearance in The Open and his 19th as a professional. He's missed the cut just twice and apart from his wins in 2000, 2005 and 2006, he held the lead on the back nine at Carnoustie last year and looks an even stronger player this year.
7 The home challenge
Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke will not want for local support, and there will be those hoping Pádraig Harrington can produce another title challenge on a course where he was in contention heading into the final round of the Irish Open in 2012.
Many have a quiet confidence in Offaly's Shane Lowry, a former North of Ireland winner at Portrush who is playing some of the best golf of his career.
Since he sacked his caddie mid-tournament at Carnoustie last year, Lowry has one win and two runner-up finishes.
Yes, his Open record makes grim reading - four successive missed cuts since he was ninth behind McIlroy at Hoylake - but he appears to have attained a new level of maturity that could be the difference this year.
8 First-time Major winner anyone?
There are 16 Open champions in the field this week, but the list of players seeking their first Major is an impressive one for punters tempted to avoid some of the favourites.
Dubai Duty Free Irish Open winner Jon Rahm tops the list of potential first-time winners ahead of Xander Schauffele, Matt Kuchar, Marc Leishman and Matt Wallace. Given that nobody has successfully defended the title since Pádraig Harrington in 2008, a maiden win looks more likely than a win for Francesco Molinari.
Given the importance of putting at Royal Portrush - Jamie Donaldson relied on that club to win the Irish Open in 2012 - fans looking for a good bet could do worse than back Graeme McDowell, Andrew Putnam and Justin Rose, who are ranked 2nd, 3rd and 4th for putting on the PGA Tour this year.
9 Open pain
The forecast looks good for the week with light rain and gentle to moderate breezes predicted. So, while scoring could be good, we're keen to see how the game's best deals with some of Royal Portrush's toughest holes.
The fourth and 9th will be testing, but the 11th could cause real headaches. Two-time champion Harrington once described this tee-shot as the most difficult in golf.
From the tee, the players face a narrow shot through the mounds either side of the fairway. The green sits perched among the sandhills above the level of the fairway, and with a severe false front, it will be tough to find the putting surface here from anywhere other than the fairway.
10 Underdog story
Everyone loves a fairy tale at The Open. Sugrue would fit the bill, but he's 500/1 given his links experience. If you're looking for a player who's different, check out Thailand's Gunn Charoenkul, who hits his driver off the deck on tight holes.
"In one tournament, I lost nine shots by using three-wood at the tight fairway with ponds on both side of it when I was inside the top 10," said Gunn, who is ranked 277th in the world.
"So, I actually broke the three-wood. As long as you don't have a three-wood, you don't hit with that club."
Who couldn't root for a guy like that?