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The Open: It's showtime as Portrush ends a 68 year wait to welcome Open


Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy

By Phil Casey

It has been a long time coming, but the wait is finally over. Sixty eight years after Max Faulkner won the only Open Championship to be staged outside Scotland or England, Royal Portrush will again welcome the world's best golfers to Northern Ireland next week to do battle for the Claret Jug.

Former world number one Rory McIlroy, who was born 60 miles away on the outskirts of Belfast, was among those who never dreamt of being able to play a major championship on home soil.

It was indeed unthinkable for decades due to the Troubles, but the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 helped turn the dream into a possibility and the major-winning exploits of Graeme McDowell, a Portrush native, Darren Clarke and McIlroy himself strengthened the hand of those pushing the venue's case.

By then the course had already staged, after a gap of 33 years, the Amateur Championship, but hosting a professional tournament, let alone a major, was obviously on an entirely different level, which is where the 2012 Irish Open comes in.

It was an astounding success with a crowd of 112,000, the first ever sell-out for a European Tour event, braving miserable weather to watch Jamie Donaldson win his first title, with McIlroy 10th and McDowell 16th.

"It felt like a test, like the R&A was watching us," tournament director Miguel Vidaor said.

"They were looking to see how the one-way system worked, the park-and-ride, whether the town could cope.

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"The atmosphere was amazing with nearly 30,000 people every day and it was a fantastic week."

The R&A were quick to play down expectations, chief executive Peter Dawson praising the course but preaching patience in a press conference ahead of the Open at Royal Lytham two weeks later.

"The practice ground would need a lot of work... and we don't have a finishing hole that would have the grandstands around it. There would be much work to do for an Open to go to Portrush," Dawson said.

"A huge amount of money would need to be spent, in my estimation, to make Royal Portrush a sensible choice. That's not a criticism of Royal Portrush; it's a wonderful golf course, but the commercial aspects of it are quite onerous.

"It's going to take some time to come to a view, and the view may be no. It's always been to an extent on our radar and our Championship Committee will, I'm sure, continue to evaluate it. But don't expect anything imminent, that's for sure."

Dawson was true to his word and it was not until October 2015 that his successor, Martin Slumbers, officially announced that Portrush would stage the 2019 Open, news which had been expected ever since club members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the required course changes the previous August.

The biggest of those changes saw two new holes - the seventh and eighth - created on the Dunluce Links from land on the adjacent Valley Links, with the existing 17th and 18th holes used for the vast tented village and media centre.

"Visually it's spectacular, how they've cut this hole through the dunes, they've made it look as if this hole's been here since the course was built," McIlroy said of the 592-yard par-five seventh.

"The new eighth hole is a fantastic par four, a huge improvement to what was the eighth hole before.

"It's going to be unbelievable. I never thought in my lifetime that I would play an Open Championship at home so it's going to be massive. This has been a tournament that I've earmarked for a long time.

"It would obviously be a dream come true to win an Open Championship here. I'm not going to lie, I've thought about it, I've thought about what it would mean and how special it would be in my career.

"Not a lot of guys get the opportunity to play such big tournaments in front of your local fans, your local people and it's going to be incredible. I can't wait for it."

McIlroy, along with more than 200,000 spectators, need wait no longer.

He has won four major titles, two World Golf Championship events and been on the winning Ryder Cup team four times, but there is only one round of golf where Rory McIlroy can remember every shot.

It came in the North of Ireland Championship in 2005 when he was a 16-year-old amateur, although it could be argued that such a feat of memory is somewhat easier when there are only 61 shots to recall.

The round in question was at Royal Portrush and can never be surpassed given the changes to the course made since, but it would have been a brave soul to bet on anyone wiping McIlroy's name from the record books.

"It didn't really feel like a very special round of golf until I made the turn," McIlroy recalled ahead of the Open's return to Portrush for the first time since 1951.

"I missed a good chance for birdie on the first and played the front nine in three under, which is a good front nine of golf but you're not really thinking about challenging the course record at that point.

"Then I eagled 10 and then I birdied 11 as well. So then all of a sudden I'm six under through 11 and you're thinking, 'OK, this could be pretty special'. Then I parred the next two holes and didn't birdie 13, which was a good chance, but then I birdied the last five in a row.

"It's funny. I keep thinking back and in that stretch of golf there's two tough holes, the 14th (Calamity Corner), which is now the 16th, and then the old 16th, which is now the 18th.

"I hit three great shots into those two holes and I think those two holes are going to be pivotal in the result of the Open Championship. You know, 16 is such a tough par three and 18 is going to be such a tough finishing hole.

"I remember I birdied both of those and I'd probably pay a lot of money for two birdies on those holes in a few days' time."

McIlroy's potential was already well known in Irish golfing circles by that point, but it was that 11-under-par 61 which really made people sit up and take notice, including Portrush native Graeme McDowell.

"I do remember when someone first told me about that round because you often hear about the next great thing," McDowell said. "We've got this kid, he's playing off +7 and blah, blah, blah.

"Then he shot 61 in the first round of qualifying for the North of Ireland and I'm like, 'Really? OK. Hold on. Now I've got to pay a little more attention to this'.

"That was probably the first time I realised that we had something pretty special on our hands from the point of view of Irish golf and Northern Irish golf."

McDowell and McIlroy have been partly responsible for the Open returning to Northern Ireland after such a long gap, their major championship victories - plus those of Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington - increasing the pressure on the R&A to overcome any commercial or logistical challenges.

"I never thought I'd be able to play a major championship at home but it's just about harnessing that support and harnessing that environment the right way and trying to use it to your advantage," McIlroy added.

"I've had a great record in the Open for the last few years so there's no reason to believe why I can't go ahead and put up a really good fight at Portrush as well."

The contenders

Brooks Koepka

An obvious choice but it is impossible to ignore the claims of the world number one, whose four major titles to date came from just eight starts and whose record this season reads 2-1-2. Koepka makes no secret of the fact that he prefers the tougher test that majors usually provide over low scoring regular PGA Tour events and also has the added advantage of caddie Ricky Elliott being from Portrush.

Rory McIlroy

McIlroy's last major victory was the 2014 US PGA Championship, but the Ulsterman can draw on the memories of his course-record 61 at Portrush, set during the North of Ireland Championship when he was a 16-year-old amateur. Two new holes have since been added and the former 17th and 18th holes will be used for the tented village, while McIlroy will have to cope with the heightened expectation of playing a major on home soil.

Xander Schauffele

Few players have enjoyed a more consistent record in the majors recently than Schauffele, who has recorded five top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts, including ties for second in the Open at Carnoustie last year and in this year's Masters at Augusta National. Schauffele was also third in the US Open at Pebble Beach last month and his wins in the Tour Championship and WGC-HSBC Champions prove he is not afraid to mix it with the best.

Jon Rahm

Rahm's Open record of 59-44-MC does not mark him out as an obvious contender, but the fiery Spaniard won the Irish Open at Portstewart in 2017, put up a strong title defence the following year at Ballyliffin and stormed to victory last week with rounds of 64 and 62 over the weekend at Lahinch. Before that win the 24-year-old had been in excellent form with victory in the Zurich Classic (with Ryan Palmer) and five top-10 finishes, including third place alongside Schauffele in the US Open.

Henrik Stenson

Stenson's last victory was almost two years ago and he was plagued by an elbow injury for much of last year, but the former Open champion has shown signs of rediscovering his best form recently with top-10 finishes in the Canadian Open and US Open. As well as his record-setting victory at Royal Troon in 2016, the Ryder Cup star was also runner-up in the 2013 Open at Muirfield and third in 2008 and 2010.

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