Royal Portrush staging The Open is a dream come true for local hero Graeme McDowell

It may have started off as a “joke”, but no-one is laughing at Graeme McDowell now. Not when the sporting world is about to see Royal Portrush for the first time and wonder why it has taken 68 years for the Open Championship to return to the spectacular County Antrim venue.

Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell talks to the media at Royal Portrush. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Northern Ireland’s past troubles, of course, played a part in the R&A not considering coming back here until now for the Claret Jug event, but, after a phenomenal run of success by Irish players in majors, it simply had to happen and, boy, are we in for a treat in the 148th edition.

“This championship will be watched in 600 million households all around the world,” reported Martin Slumbers, pictured, the R&A’s chief executive, of an event that is set to firmly establish Royal Portrush on the global golfing mat. “And that profile will bring into households this course many people have never heard of and this beautiful landscape. They will share the passion you can feel out there. I have never been to an Open Championship where so many people have come up and said, ‘thank you for what you’ve done’.”

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The Irish Open broke the European Tour attendance record when it was held here in 2012. This event was sold out in no time. A crowd of 237,750 will have poured through the gates by the time the Champion Golfer of the Year is determined on Sunday night. It will be the highest attendance for the event outside 
St Andrews and wasn’t far away from toppling the 239,000 record there 
in 2000.

For the likes of McDowell, it’s a dream come true. “Growing up here in the town of Portrush, I must have walked past the photo of Fred Daly (the Northern Irishman who won at Royal Liverpool in 1947) with the Claret Jug in his hand about 10,000 times,” said the 2010 US Open champion as he held court in the media centre, having been handed the last slot on an interview schedule that had been kicked off by the other local resident in the field, Darren Clarke.

“In my home club of Rathmore, just 500 yards down the road there, and growing up with the legend of ’51 and kind of everything that happened at that Open, Max Faulkner. To have kind of gone through the ranks and turned pro and started playing Open Championships myself. And to have played a small role, I guess, in kind of getting the gears in motion again to get the Open Championship back here, I mean, it’s a proud moment to see it come together.

“As a kid, I never really thought about the reasons why (it was out in the golfing wilderness for so long). I mean, the obvious political struggles that we had in the 70s, 80s, 90s, I was too young to really grasp the magnitude and the reasons and be able to comprehend what the solutions were back in those days.

“But, when I eventually got out here on Tour and started spending time at Open Championship venues and got familiar enough with Peter Dawson (the former R&A chief executive) to be able to kind of give him a little bit of a ribbing, it started off as a joke, Why can’t we go back to Portrush? And the reasons were: infrastructure and this and that and the other.

“When the ball really started to get rolling was when Padraig [Harrington] won his three majors and then I won and Rory [McIlroy] and Darren [Clarke] picked up a major each, as well. And the jokes turned kind of serious. When the Irish Open in 2012 broke the European Tour attendance record, I think the R&A couldn’t ignore the fact that this could be a commercial success. The jokes became very serious. It was like, we can do this, we can pull it off.

“It’s so enormous when you see it happening in your home town and you see just how everyone benefits. How the whole country, how the whole island is benefiting. The infrastructure economically here in Portrush, I’ve never seen the town look so great. And just the buzz from the people this week, it’s been amazing the last few days.”

That Irish Open seven years ago had some smelly weather and, after wet and windy conditions for the final practice day this time around, Mother Nature is also set to play a hand in this event, which could see a first American clean sweep of the men’s majors since 1982 after title triumphs earlier this year for Tiger Woods (The 
Masters), Brooks Koepka (US PGA Championship) and Gary Woodland (US Open).

“I think we’re going to see a stronger wind, a little bit more out of the west tomorrow. And it will test the guys,” opined McDowell, who joins McIlroy and Clarke in attempting to win this event on home soil, just as Paul Lawrie did at Carnoustie exactly 20 years ago. “They haven’t really had a chance to see this place with its teeth sharp.”

Those teeth didn’t stop McIlroy firing a course-record 61 here when he was just 16 and, though the first to admit that it’s a much more difficult test these days, the four-time major winner has good reason to feel quietly confident heading into the most exciting week of his life. In his last four starts in this event, he’s not finished outside the top five.

Even more impressive, of course, is the recent run of Brooks Koepka in majors. The American has finished first-second-first-second in the last four and, with local man Ricky Elliott on his bag, he’s likely to be there or thereabouts once again when we get down to the nitty gritty at the 
weekend.

Francesco Molinari, of course, will be aiming to pull off a trick last achieved by Harrington 11 years ago as he bids for back-to-back wins as the Claret Jug event brings down the curtain on the major season this time around due to the US PGA Championship moving to May.

“It’s been a pretty fast season, I have to confess,” admitted Slumbers. “But I could see nothing but positives for The Open being the fourth major of the year.

“I think it’s added an additional nuance to this week. And it probably adds a little additional feeling around who’s going to become the Champion Golfer of the Year.”

Now, what a story it would be if that was McDowell. “If I can somehow get out of the blocks tomorrow, get myself settled down, and get into the mix this weekend, it would be pretty cool to be coming back down on Sunday,” admitted the local hero. “That’s the vision. That’s the goal and I can’t wait to hear what it sounds like.”