Cheers and tears at Royal Portrush on a drama-packed opening day

America's J. B. Holmes plays his second shot to the 17th at Royal Portrush. Picture: Kevin C. Cox/Getty
America's J. B. Holmes plays his second shot to the 17th at Royal Portrush. Picture: Kevin C. Cox/Getty
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It will mainly be remembered as the day when Rory McIlroy’s dream turned into a nightmare, but there was much more that would have been talked about over pints of Guinness in the local hostelries at the end of a dramatic opening day in the 148th Open Championship at Royal 
Portrush.

The rousing reception at just after 6:30am for local resident Darren Clarke as he struck the blow that officially marked the event’s return to the Antrim venue, for instance, and, as the sell-out crowd swelled, the roar was even louder for the likes of McIlroy, Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry before reaching a crescendo when Portrush-born Graeme McDowell appeared on the first tee just before 9:15am.

That brought a tear to McDowell’s eye and, boy, was he feeling dandy until seeing his “special day” end with a nasty sting as five dropped shots in the last four holes left him having to settle for a 73, seven shots off the lead after American JB Holmes came in late in the day with a five-under-par opening salvo. “To finish like that hurts a lot,” admitted McDowell, having seen the main damage caused by a lost ball at the last leading to a triple-bogey 7.

Under new rules introduced at the start of this year, the time to search for a ball is just three minutes after previously being five. “I thought it was a hell of a rule there until about 12 minutes ago,” joked McDowell as he revealed his ball had been found just 12 seconds after the three minutes had elapsed, by which time he was about to head back to the tee.

Earlier, Clarke also thrilled the home fans by bursting out of the blocks to get to three-under before the 2011 champion had to settle for a 71. “That was pretty much up there,” he said of striking that opening blow. “I probably smiled a little bit more today than I normally do. But I was trying to show my appreciation to all the people around here today.”

After McIlroy’s nightmare start – and his finish, for that matter – the wave of electricity around the course dropped for a bit and Tiger Woods did nothing to help re-energise the place as he struggled to a 78, a disappointing effort, though probably not unexpected bearing in mind he’d only played three times since The Masters before arriving here.

Holmes, who played a practice round with McIlroy, started his round with a bogey before quickly bouncing back with a burst of three birdies in the next four holes, adding three more on the back nine. Three years ago, the 37-year-old from Kentucky finished third at Royal Troon but was something of a forgotten man in that event as he ended up 13 shots behind Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson after their thrilling title tussle over the weekend.

“That was a great week for me,” insisted Holmes, a five-time PGA Tour winner, including the Genesis Open earlier this year. “There were two guys that got really hot that week. Besides that I pretty much had beat the field. So that’s definitely a boost. I learned a lot playing in that event. And you try to take that to the next one.”

Lowry, one of golf’s good guys, would be a hugely popular winner here. The man who won the 2009 Irish Open as an amateur at Baltray is off to a promising start. His 67, which included five birdies and one bogey, was down to a pep talk from Edinburgh man Neil Manchip, the coach he trusts implicitly. “I don’t feel like practice went unbelievably well this week,” said the 32-year-old Mullinger man. “I felt a little bit uncomfortable, so we went for coffee yesterday down at the Bushmills Inn and we found a little quiet room, where we had a great chat for about 40 minutes. I left that room full of confidence and ready to go. We just put everything out in the open, everything out on the table, what could happen, what might happen.”

Even then, he felt relieved that the opening tee shot was downwind and only required a 3-iron. “I felt very unconfident on the first tee, I’m not going to lie,” added the bearded Lowry. “But I hit a good tee shot and from there on I was off and running, and hit some good shots from there and made some good decisions.”

On a day that McDowell
described as “tricky” due to heavy showers blowing through in a stiff breeze, no fewer than 13 players signed for 68s, including rising Scottish star Bob MacIntyre, world No 1 Brooks Koepka and Kiwi Ryan Fox, who stormed home in 29 to set a new back-nine record for the event, previously held by a group that included Eric Brown, the former Ryder Cup player and captain from Bathgate.

MacIntyre’s three-under-par effort came in his major debut, the highlight being an eagle-2 at the fifth on a course he knows quite well from playing here in the 2015 Home Internationals. “I was about two yards from going out of bounds,” said the 22-year-old of taking a driver when his caddie, Irishman Greg Milne, wanted him to hit a 3-wood. “But you get a bit of luck – and hopefully you take advantage of it.”

Koepka, who has finished first-second-first-second in the last four majors, is lurking ominously, as is Irish Open champion Jon Rahm, another of that posse on 68, though the Spaniard took a bit off the gloss off his day by dropping two shots in the last four holes.

Francesco Molinari, the defending champion, struggled to a 74. “It was costly today,” said the Italian of his sluggish performance, “but I’ll try to learn from today and do better tomorrow.”