In a span of six majors, Northern Ireland, with a population of 1.87 million, had produced three champions. What began as a question – “Could the Open return to Royal Portrush?” – became a drumbeat until organisers found a way to make it work. Golf’s oldest championship returns this week to the Dunluce Links of Royal Portrush for the first time since Max Faulkner’s victory in 1951, the only occasion in 159 years that the Open was not held in Scotland or England.
“I didn’t see it getting big enough or sophisticated enough to host an Open,” said David Feherty, who grew up in Northern Ireland and makes his return as part of the NBC Sports broadcast team. “It’s just extraordinary what they’ve done.”
The response to Royal Portrush hosting the Open for the first time in 68 years has been a combination of excitement and mystery. The championship was a sellout 11 months ahead of time. The R&A decided in April to provide an additional 15,000 tickets for tournament days, and those were snatched up quickly.
That means more than 200,000 spectators for the competition days of the 148th Open. And that should come as no surprise. Royal Portrush hosted the Irish Open in 2012 and drew 112,000 fans over four days, a European Tour record.
“I believe big-time sport needs big-time crowds,” R&A chief Martin Slumbers said. “We’re certainly going to get that.”
And what will they see? That’s the mystery. The vast majority of the 156-man field – only 21 players were at the 2012 Irish Open – will be competing on the Harry Colt design for the first time. Francesco Molinari, the defending champion, who will try to become the first back-to-back winner since Padraig Harrington in 2007-8, was one of those 21. Clarke still had possession of the Claret Jug when he returned to Portrush for the Irish Open and was paired with Molinari.
“Being paired with Darren the first round, it was something I still remember,” Molinari said. “So I can only imagine what the Open is going to be. It is going to be even bigger, going back to Northern Ireland after so many years. Defending is always special, but defending in a place where the tournament has not been for so long I’m sure is going to be extra special.”
There have been a few changes. To make it a large enough stage for the Open, the R&A, with approval from the club, altered the course. Martin Ebert, who consults on a half-dozen links in the Open rotation, took land from the Valley Links to build two new holes, Nos 7 and 8. The original 17th and 18th holes are now used for the tented village. The nature of the links hasn’t changed.
There are fewer bunkers than at most links courses because the contours and cliffs and dunes serve as a reasonable defence. The 16th hole is “Calamity Corner”, where a shot over the ravine on the 236-yard par 3 that falls to the right could wind up 50 feet below the green.
Feherty recalls being there the first time he played with his father and almost didn’t make it back up. “I almost had to rope myself to my dad and establish base camp,” he said.
McDowell is the only one of the three major champions from this generation who actually grew up in Portrush, at Rathmore, the club next door. Even with a victory this year in the Dominican Republic, nothing was as satisfying as his 68 in the final round of the Canadian Open to earn a spot in the Open.
He could only dream of Royal Portrush getting another Open. It would have been a nightmare to miss it.
For McIlroy, the pressure might be greater than going for the career Grand Slam at the Masters. The only two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year is No 3 in the world. He grew up in Holywood, but Royal Portrush feels like home. He was 16 when he set the North of Ireland Amateur course record of 61.
Tiger Woods used to go to Ireland to prepare for the Open. Now it’s time to play, and there might be some rust. For the second time this year, Woods goes into a major championship without having played in a month. Since his victory at the Masters, the biggest buzz in golf this year, he has played three tournaments and ten rounds.
Brooks Koepka will try to extend his amazing run in the majors – two victories and two runner-up finishes in the last four. He has never fared particularly well in links golf, which might be all the motivation he needs. The Americans, meanwhile, will try to go for their first sweep of the majors since 1982, when Craig Stadler won the Masters, Tom Watson won the US Open and Open and Raymond Floyd won the US PGA Championship.
Until then, the intrigue is Royal Portrush. “It’s been a long time in the making,” McIlroy said. “And obviously, everyone over there is so excited.”