Royal Portrush has its arms open wide and its hat tipped towards Rory McIlroy.
As much as he tries to play down his significance and his popularity this week the people of Ulster are all for one as the Open Championship returns to Northern Ireland for the second time, 68 years after Max Faulkner won his only Claret Jug on this precious stretch of holes along the Antrim coast.
The rolling out of the Open is symbolic of the changes wrought in a country that has travelled so far from the political upheaval and tragic divisions of Seventies and Eighties Northern Ireland, echoes of which are still evident in a ruling assembly presently suspended for the fifth time since it came into being following the Good Friday Agreement of 21 years ago.
McIlroy is part of the post-Troubles landscape, a generation for whom the violence and fear of the past is experienced through the testimony of elders. That said, he understands enough about the history of the province to recognise the ground being broken. “It’s a different time. It’s a very prosperous place. I’m very fortunate that I grew up just outside Belfast and I [have] never seen anything. I was oblivious to it. I watched a movie a couple of years ago. It was just basically called 71. It’s about a British soldier who gets stationed at the Palace Barracks in Holywood, which is literally 500 yards from where I grew up. It follows him on the night of the Troubles and all that. And I remember asking my mom and dad, is this actually what happened?
“It’s amazing to think 40 years on it’s such a great place, no one cares who they are, where they’re from, what background they’re from. You can have a great life and it doesn’t matter what side of the street you come from. I think that’s what I was talking about the legacy of this tournament, to be able to have this tournament here again, I think it speaks volumes about where the country and where the people that live here are now. We’re so far past that. And that’s a wonderful thing.”
This will be major No 20 since McIlory won the last of his four big pots, or 19 if you take into account the ankle he turned playing football in 2015 that forced him out of his Open defence. He has turned 30 now. Brooks Koepka, below, is shaping the future we thought would be his to claim. Even Tiger Woods is a major winner again. McIlroy is steeped in the folklore of Portrush. Before he set the course record here as a 16-year-old (61), it was held as the gold standard of links of golf in the imagination of a golf-mad nipper.
“My first memories of Portrush are coming up here to watch my dad play in the North of Ireland (Amateur Open). I remember chipping around the chipping green, being seven or eight years of age, my dad out playing on the Dunluce. They were sort of my summers and then all of a sudden I got to the stage where I was playing North of Ireland. My dad brought me to Portrush for my 10th birthday to play, which was my present. Actually met Darren Clarke that day for the first time, which was really cool.
“Portrush has been a very big, at least the golf club, part of my upbringing. It’s sort of surreal that it’s here. Even driving in yesterday, when you’re coming in on the road and you look to the right and you’ve got the second tee, I don’t know who was teeing off, maybe Tony Finau and someone else, sort of strange to see them here.”
McIlroy’s place at the top of the betting reflects the esteem in which he is held by his own. His outings in town have been met with the usual outpouring of love and affection. This type of reaction is common wherever golf is played. McIlory is showered in polite deference everywhere he goes. Here it just means more, especially this week in the context of the return of a global event to Ulster.
“I can’t just put the blinkers on and pretend that’s not all going on. One of my sort of mantras this week is: ‘look around and smell the roses’. This is a wonderful thing for this country and golf in general. And to be quite a big part of it is an honour and a privilege. And I want to keep reminding myself of that, that this is bigger than me; right? I think if you can look at the bigger picture and you can see that, it sort of takes a little bit of the pressure off. I still want to play well and concentrate and do all the right things, but at the same time just having that perspective might just make me relax a little bit more.”
Ultimately McIlory is looking for the elusive key to unlock the talent that delivered four majors by 25. Though arguably a better technician than he has ever been, the fearless bounce of his youth has gone, the cost of the epic defeats and disappointments that are as much a part of the game as the victories. If only he were able to reacquaint himself with the uninhibited purity of his teenage years, we might yet see the best of him in the days ahead.