The Open: Record crowds make big splash in historic event
Torrential downpours greeted fans and players at Royal Portrush yesterday as the clock ticked down to the opening round of the Open.
Club captain Robert Barry said the return of the major championship, after a gap of almost 70 years, had put a smile on everybody's face.
As crowds thronged the fairways of the historic links course on the fourth and final practice day before the action proper got under way this morning, Mr Barry said the overriding mood was one of "fun".
"Everyone has a smile on their face, both members and the spectators who are coming in and also the R&A and the players," he said.
Mr Barry paid tribute to the role of Stormont's politicians in convincing tournament organisers, the R&A, to once again cross the Irish Sea.
"For years we were seen as a bit of a pariah country, but it never was and we never got the opportunity," he said.
"We didn't get a chance, people didn't come and the world has opened their eyes and the media has opened the world's eyes to what we have here and more and more people are seeing it and coming to see it.
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"People got together, from politicians through to members of the golf club, and somebody who has been left out of this to an extent is the late Martin McGuinness and what he did behind the scenes.
"They have worked very, very hard and it has come together. And now there's just excitement - Portrush is buzzing, Northern Ireland is buzzing and the whole island of Ireland is buzzing."
David McMullan, deputy chairman of the club's championship committee, said people in the seaside town have talked about little else since it was announced in 2014 that the tournament would be returning.
"For the last five years it's been the talking point, everyone if they go out to the bar and have a chat it's 'The Open is coming'."
Mr McMullan said the whole town has never looked so good, highlighting the success of a multi-million pound facelift ahead of the event.
"Living in Northern Ireland there was a time when it wouldn't have happened with the peace process," he said of the Open's return.
"The local politicians of all sides have been very engaged in the whole process and when we see everything going on out on the course now, you see everyone having a good time and smiling and all the fun that's going on we're just reaping the rewards of where we are now."
A record-breaking crowd of 237,750 will attend the event, setting a record for a Championship staged outside St Andrews.
This year's attendance also surpasses the crowd of 235,000 that attended Royal Birkdale in 2017 and the 237,000 mark set at St Andrews in 2015 - making it the second largest Championship ever.
A record-breaking 61,000 fans have attended practice days at the 148th Open, surpassing the previous high of 52,000 set at Hoylake in 2006.
Martin Slumbers, chief executive at the R&A, said: "This is a huge week not just for The Open but for golf as well.
"We are making history with a record attendance for a Championship staged outside of St Andrews and the levels of excitement among fans this week have been phenomenal.
"I said last year that big time sport needs big time crowds and we certainly have that at Royal Portrush as we stage the biggest sporting event ever to be held in Northern Ireland.
"The eyes of the sporting world are firmly set on Royal Portrush.
"We would like to thank all the fans for their passion and enthusiasm as we look forward to finding out who will lift the Claret Jug on Sunday. The Open would not be the success it is without the spectators."