The Open: Portrush gets in the swing as big day finally arrives
But home favourites falter as 600m worldwide tune in for historic event
Never mind swinging a golf club, there was barely enough room to swing a cat at Royal Portrush yesterday as the town that dared to dream the impossible dream welcomed the world to the biggest sporting event in Northern Ireland's history with open arms.
But for fans of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, the opening day of the long-awaited return of the biggest of big-time golf to the north coast venue turned into a nightmare as their heroes crashed and burned on a round to forget.
The first of yesterday's 43,750 visiting fans were up before the sun to travel to Royal Portrush to herald the dawn of the day that UK golf's Major championship came back, against all the odds, to the north coast after 68 years - a return made all the more unlikely by four decades of bloody sectarian violence.
"Seeing the TV footage of men walking on the Moon 50 years ago this week looked like a doddle compared to persuading the Royal and Ancient to return with The Open to Portrush at the height of the killings," said one club veteran.
But yesterday the nightmarish handicap of the province's troubled past that had stopped the game's administrators even considering Portrush as a possible Open venue was well and truly blown away by the sight of golf's most famous faces, like Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and defending champion Francesco Molinari, striving to win the oldest championship on Earth.
On the stroke of 6.35am - despite the ungodly hour - thousands of fans were already in place to see local hero Darren Clarke, who lives overlooking the redesigned Royal Portrush course, set the ball rolling having been given the honour of playing the first shot in The Open.
Darren, who finished level par, said: "The support from the crowd on the first tee was fantastic.
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"And walking up the 18th was fabulous."
In Belfast, the rush to the Port had teed off at 4.25am with the departure of the first of a number of special trains bound for The Open.
The bleary-eyed travellers came from right across the world and they travelled by train because, like some golf fans who slept in their cars in Portrush, they said they couldn't afford to stay on the north coast, where hotels and house owners were charging thousands for their accommodation.
Even more priceless were the looks on the faces of 'pinch me' fans catching their first glimpses of the breathtaking Open course and its buildings, which had taken months to put up and which will take just as long to dismantle.
It was the new Giant on the Causeway Coast with 14 grandstands, including one 4,300-seater horseshoe edifice at the 18th that would have tested the mettle of Finn McCool himself.
One of the early risers at Royal Portrush was the club's secretary-manager Wilma Erskine, who toured the spectator village and media centre to make sure everything was par for the course.
It was the start of the end of an emotional journey for her to attract The Open to Royal Portrush, where Wilma has worked for 35 years and where she once oversaw a club in the wilderness.
"We had no visitors during the Troubles but we are now a world-class destination with a £5m turnover, one of the top courses on the planet."
Also out and about first thing was the R&A's chief executive Martin Slumbers, who said he was convinced that Portrush would be the best ever Open.
He added that attendance figures had already borne out his predictions, soaring to record levels with an unprecedented sell-out for all four days of the Championship - and for the practice sessions, too.
He acknowledged that the influence of Northern Ireland's triumphant triumvirate of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke had been a major factor in the R&A decision to add Portrush to The Open rota, and in bolstering the crowds.
Visitors to Royal Portrush weren't just looking for golfing royalty yesterday.
The rumour mill has been grinding out names like George Clooney and David Beckham all week, just stopping short of saying Lord Lucan and the crew of the Marie Celeste had been spotted in Portrush.
One man insisted that he'd seen Pep Guardiola, which was quite something because his Manchester City team were playing in a competition in Asia at the time.
Royal Portrush member Jimmy Nesbitt, who has a house across the road from the course, wasn't a figment of anyone's imagination.
Hard to miss in the Port yesterday were 18 strapping and identically attired Canadians in red and white and who were all there to support their fellow countryman Adam Hadwin.
Another group of Americans were dressed in 'Stars and Stripes' suits.
Former Irish League referee Alan Snoddy and ex-goalkeeper Bobby Carlisle were hoping to pick up a few tips from the golfing stars.
But Carlisle said: "If what they're playing here today is golf, I'm going to have to find a new name for what I'm doing with my clubs." One visitor from Co Down was on something of a busman's holiday, with his interest in the greens almost as high as his interest in the golfers.
Sean Mulligan is a greenkeeper at Royal County Down in Newcastle.
And his verdict about Royal Portrush's greens?
"They're almost close to ours," he smiled.
His friend Philip Hughes was there to cheer on Ricky Fowler and wore a garish baseball cap to prove it.
The men's eight-year-old sons Jonathan Hughes and Corey Mulligan were waiting at the first tee to see their hero Tiger Woods.
But long before the American appeared, Rory McIlroy received a deafening ovation from the fans at the first hole.
They stood six-deep to see him hit his first shot, which silenced the Rory roar as fans realised it was a shocker and which led to him carding eight - the first of a series of horrors for the Holywood man.
One of his wayward shots reportedly smashed a spectator's mobile phone.
It was a far cry from the time that 16-year-old Rory established a course record of 61 for Royal Portrush.
Yesterday he finished eight over par on 79 and later told journalists: "It was a rough start but I felt like I showed some good resilience after that."
Graeme McDowell dropped four shots in the last few holes and signed for a two over par.
Tiger Woods was less than impressive but his fans weren't fazed.
"It may be the one and only time we ever see Tiger in an Open here," said Peter Fulton from Derry.
"We're talking legend here."
And it wasn't only the fans who were fixated with Tiger, who still sells newspapers like no one else.
Over 650 journalists who were accredited for The Open were operating from a media centre at Portrush, which had to be seen to be believed, with the sort of hi-tech facilities that make it possible for reporters to cover the entire Championship without ever seeing a ball being struck in person.
Sky TV pictures captured by a 2,000-strong team were beamed onto big screens in the centre, and golfers were wheeled into an interview area after their various rounds.
The NBC Golf Channel from America brought 200 people to their state-of-the-art headquarters behind the Rathmore Golf Club.
Their viewing figures for The Open in Britain in the last two years were bigger than for the Open on their side of the Atlantic.
Correspondent Geoff Shackelford said the Portrush course was almost perfect, adding: "You can tell by the mood of the players that they feel they are part of something special."
In the midst of the sometimes toxic Twelfth fortnight, one writer said that The Open appeared to be one of the few things in Northern Ireland that people could agree on.
Some visiting journalists were keen to find out why and were told "there are no borders in golf".
Broadcasters estimate their coverage could be seen in a mind-numbing 600 million households around the world, a statistic that had tourist chiefs in Northern Ireland salivating.
One source said that a number of new hotels were poised to open on the north coast, built on the success of golf in the area.
Another money-spinner in the shorter term yesterday was the booming trade in golfing memorabilia.
Few fans who went to The Open yesterday left it without purchasing souvenirs from a massive shop that was reminiscent of an Ikea store, and almost as difficult to get out of.
The R&A have estimated that the economic spin-off for The Open could be upwards of £80m.
Meanwhile, the high rollers of business were entertained royally at Royal Portrush in hospitality venues where tables in premium areas can cost thousands of pounds.