Open shows how far Northern Ireland has come since Troubles, insists Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy has spoken of his pride in the transformation of Northern Ireland as the biggest sporting event ever staged here tees off.
Ahead of The Open Championship beginning at Royal Portrush today, McIlroy said the tournament's return after more than half a century was a powerful sign that society has moved into a new era.
A star-studded guest list on the north coast includes the likes of 15-time Major winner Tiger Woods, US Ryder Cup star Phil Mickelson and Irish Open champion Jon Rahm.
All will be aiming to lift the famous Claret Jug by winning the year's final Major.
It has been a long wait for Portrush, which earned the right to host the tournament after successfully staging the 2012 Irish Open.
After years of planning, the event finally got under way just after 6.30am this morning when Darren Clarke, winner of the 2011 Open, hit the first tee shot.
It has already been confirmed as the best attended Open of all time outside of St Andrews, with 237,750 spectators set to pass through the gates of Royal Portrush over the next four days.
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Millions more are set to watch it on television around the world, with images of Northern Ireland's picturesque coastline providing a spectacular backdrop.
The town itself has been revamped, with the train station given a makeover, streets relaid and houses painted in anticipation of the event, which organisers say will be a phenomenal advert for the country.
And speaking on the eve of the tournament yesterday, McIlroy said it was a chance for Northern Ireland to shine.
The 30-year-old, from Holywood in Co Down, will carry the hopes of fans dreaming of a local winner.
He said: "I think no matter what happens this week, if I win or whoever else wins, having The Open back in this country is a massive thing for golf. And I think as well it will be a massive thing for the country.
"Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together. We all know that this country sometimes needs that. This has the ability to do that.
"Talking of legacy, that could be the biggest impact this tournament has outside of sport, outside of everything else - the fact that people are coming here to enjoy it and have a good time and sort of forget everything else that sort of goes on."
This is the first time The Open has been at Royal Portrush since 1951, when Max Faulkner won around the Dunluce links.
In the years since, much has changed.
The Troubles that engulfed Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, raging for three decades, made many assume the tournament would never again cross the Irish Sea.
But the onset of peace has seen the region play host to major events, such as the 2011 MTV Europe Music Awards and the opening stages of the 2014 Giro d'Italia.
For McIlroy, to be staging the 148th Open is another major milestone, and an indication that Northern Ireland is "so far" from the past.
He added: "I think it just means that people have moved on. It's a different time, it's a very prosperous place.
"I'm very fortunate that I grew up just outside Belfast and I never saw anything, I was oblivious to it.
"I remember I watched a movie a couple of years ago, it was just basically called '71'. It's about a British soldier who gets stationed at the Palace Barracks in Holywood, which is literally 500 yards from where I grew up and it basically follows him on a night of the Troubles and all that. And I remember asking my mum and dad, is this actually what happened?
"It's amazing to think 40 years on it's such a great place, no one cares who they are, where they're from, what background they're from, but you can have a great life and it doesn't matter what side of the street you come from.
"That's what I was talking about, the legacy of this tournament, to be able to have this tournament here again, I think it speaks volumes of where the country and where the people that live here are now.
"We're so far past that and that's a wonderful thing."
As for the tournament itself, McIlroy is right up there among the favourites, while another Northern Irishman is likely to be in the hunt too, although for Ricky Elliott, from Portrush, it will be as a caddie for world number one Brooks Koepka.
But McIlroy, who is the world number three, is just aiming to enjoy an event that he admitted he never even dreamed he would be a part of. The golf can take care of itself.
"One of my sort of mantras this week is look around and smell the roses. This is a wonderful thing for this country and golf in general, and to be quite a big part of it is an honour and a privilege," he added.
"I want to keep reminding myself of that, that this is bigger than me, right? This is bigger than me."
John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism NI, said bringing the Open to Northern Ireland would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
"We're 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, if someone had said in 1999 that in 20 years' time you're going to have the Open Championship at Royal Portrush, I don't think anyone would have believed that," he said.