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More emotional than I thought: Darren Clarke reflects on stunning opening round at The Open at Royal Portrush

Darren Clarke hits the opening tee shot of the 2019 Open (Richard Sellers/PA)
Darren Clarke hits the opening tee shot of the 2019 Open (Richard Sellers/PA)
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

As he waved to the crowd having holed out on the 18th green at Royal Portrush, it was clear that it was an emotional moment for Darren Clarke.

As a player, he's one of Northern Ireland's 'Big Three' - the Major winners that have done so much for the sport in the country.

Off the course, he's been a driving force - one of the persistent voices in the ear of those who matter to bring The Open back after its 68-year absence from the country.

With the roars of adulation ringing in his ears, his work had come full circle and to completion. A long-standing dream, of holing a putt on the 18th green at the Dunluce links at The Open, had come to fruition.

It was everything he ever thought it would be and then some.

"It was more emotional than I thought it was going to be, to be honest," said 2011 Open champion Clarke.

"I knew the golf course was going to be fabulous. I think you guys know better than me, after having spoken to all the players and stuff, they're really enjoying the golf course.

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"It is a proper, fair test of golf. The scores are going to show that, not just today but at the end of the week."

After that first tee shot, things threatened to become the stuff of fairytales, potentially of legend. Birdies at the first, the third and the fifth had him three-under and at the head of the leaderboard.

But then it all came crashing down with a semi-shank into the thick rough at the seventh. A dropped ball and a bogey later, the momentum had shuddered to a halt.

"I just got a little bit carried away. Hit a beautiful drive and then I tried to hit a 4-iron for the second shot and just got ahead of it and hit it a bit right," admitted the 50-year-old.

"That was one of those stupid ones. I picked the wrong (shot) and paid a penalty for doing that.

"The first six holes I was really enjoying them and playing with a little bit of freedom, then after I made that bogey I got a little bit defensive, almost. I was trying to not make mistakes, as opposed to playing a little bit better.

"Then I'd have spells where I'd hit a couple lovely shots and make birdies and do some stupid things and make bogeys. I guess that comes with being 50, really!"

The defensive golf didn't yield the results he was hoping for. The very testing par-four 11th was a bogey and the 13th saw him miss a five-footer for birdie, before further bogeys at 14, 16 and 17.

Mix in birdies at the par-five 12th and the accessible 15th and all that culminates in a very respectable level-par 71.

"It was tricky out there. We probably had the best of the day and it was still tricky," argued Clarke.

"It was hard to score, and Portrush, in this sort of breeze, it's a challenge. That's just what it is. It's fair but tough, brilliant."

Today, however, was more about the occasion than the golf. Clarke could have shanked his drive off the tee and broken a window in the clubhouse and he'd still be revered by all in attendance.

After four years of waiting for it to happen, Clarke was honoured with the first tee shot of the first Open in Northern Ireland since 1951, and he was not going to miss it for anything.

"I was very sensible last night, I didn't think this was a good tee time to miss," laughed the jovial Clarke.

"That was pretty much up there. I didn't think I'd feel the way I did. But the support, everything from the crowds, just everything about it sort of when I was about to hit my tee shot, made me think 'wow, it's The Open Championship, we're back in Portrush.

"It was amazing. I probably smiled a little bit more today than I have been, than I normally do, but I was trying to show my appreciation to all the people around here today."

For Clarke, however, this is a dream come true. Like McIlroy admitted earlier in the week, his fellow countryman never thought he'd be playing a shot in an Open Championship at Royal Portrush in his lifetime.

As someone who lived through the Troubles and the political unrest, the thought of having one of golf's biggest tournaments on these shores was a dream at best, and not a very realistic one.

This morning, he kicked it all of by smashing a driver down the middle of the first fairway of the Dunluce links, capped with a little fade for good measure.

The chances of this being a one and done tournament are highly unlikely too. Should everything go without a hitch before the end of play on Sunday, The Open will be back.

That, unsurprisingly, has Clarke delighted, and for him that's a wonderful sign of progress in Northern Ireland.

"I think Rory summed it up perfectly: The Open wasn't about him; it was about how far our country has come. How far it's moved forward," he concurred.

"The economic benefits of what this tournament is going to bring, not just this week, but the legacy going forward, what it's going to bring to the country.

"But you go back and take a look at some of the pictures 20 years ago, we wouldn't be standing having this conversation. And you go down the street, maybe not here, but you see police everywhere, you see Army everywhere, you don't see that anymore.

"We're very proud of our country, and it was one of those things that I was very proud to be standing on that first tee hitting the first shot."

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