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Darren Clarke: Open returning to Northern Ireland 'symbolic moment' after Troubles

Look of love: Darren Clarke at Royal Portrush with the Claret Jug, which will be up for grabs in July
Look of love: Darren Clarke at Royal Portrush with the Claret Jug, which will be up for grabs in July

Darren Clarke has said that the Open at Royal Portrush will be a watershed moment for Northern Ireland after the violence of the Troubles.

The Dungannon golfer told the Mail on Sunday that hosting the tournament would have been unthinkable during the years where violence ravaged the province.

Now he says Northern Ireland will have the chance to showcase the best of the region when television cameras from around the world descend on Portrush later this month.

The former Open champion has not ruled out surprising a few people himself at the tournament if he can get a little luck.

"Is it beyond the realms of possibility that I could win here? No, it's not. Is it a probability? Probably not. But if the weather was inclement, if it was blustery, could I have a really good week? Yes I could. How good that week is I don't know but I know I could have a really good week," Clarke said.

"The bottom line is that in 10 days or so, I am going to tee it up on one of my favourite golf courses in the world in Portrush in The Open as a past champion. It doesn't get much better than that.

"The question is, are they going to put me off on the first tee shot at 6.30am? That means you're not really supposed to do any good in the tournament. We'll see."

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Clarke said that attracting the Open to Portrush for the first time since 1951 was a sign of how far Northern Ireland has progressed in recent years.

He revealed that he narrowly escaped a bomb himself a few days before Christmas 1986 while working as a bar man at the Inn on the Park nightclub in his hometown of Dungannon.

After a bomb threat and evacuation a car bomb exploded outside the venue causing major damage to the hotel where Clarke had been working just hours earlier.

Royal Portrush gears up for the 148th Open
Royal Portrush gears up for the 148th Open

"The car had been parked there for several hours, the bomb could have gone off at any stage and we wouldn't be having this conversation," Clarke said.

"That was growing up in Northern Ireland. I had friends and relatives who were murdered, all sorts of bits and pieces. It just happened.

"As a kid, I started playing golf in Dungannon and Dungannon was probably the most bombed clubhouse in Northern Ireland. It blew up all the time. It was a mixed community clubhouse but I think it was just a bit of an easy target. I think they used it for bomb practice. It got blown up frequently."

Clarke said that hosting The Open was "never on the radar" during those dark days.

"That was Northern Ireland and a lot of people got killed and you look back at it and wonder why. If you look at any conflict around the world, it is all religion-based and there were people here strong enough in their views that they would do what they did for it. It was very sad," he said.

"So the thought of having The Open championship back here was never on the radar at all for obvious reasons and now that it is happening, it is a symbolic moment. A return to the mainstream. This is the biggest golf tournament in the world. This is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, so the eyes of the world will be fixed on us.

Darren Clarke won the Open in 2011 (Owen Humphreys/PA)
Darren Clarke won the Open in 2011 (Owen Humphreys/PA)

"The pictures that we used to send around the world were not the kind of images you want to see. This is a positive image."

The golfer, now 50, currently resides in Portrush and said the Open would have a massive impact on the area.

"Never mind that the majority of Game of Thrones was filmed just down the road from here but these are live pictures of a massive sporting event going to all corners of the globe and that is huge. The Open is worth £125m to the local economy. That is almost life-changing to a lot of people," Clarke said.

"You walk into the Harbour Bar and you would have a barrister, a fisherman just off the boat, someone who's unemployed, a top surgeon.

"It's a complete mixture of everything and nobody cares. The place hasn't been painted in 30 years but the Guinness and the craic in there is just brilliant. It's what a little old pub should be.

"I want to feel what the vibe's like down in the town and enjoy all that for a couple of pints as well. It's going to be hard to get a balance, but I am going to enjoy it. If I enjoy it, I'll probably play better."

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