Rain not spoiling the party as golf’s Open returns to Portrush

The rain hammered down and the home hero’s victory chances were washed away but nothing was about to spoil the Portrush party on the Open’s historic return.

Rory McIlroy’s disastrous first round dampened the cheers only briefly as the thousands lucky enough to secure a ticket savoured every sodden moment of the opening day of the 148th Open, heading home with smiles as wide as when the gates opened at 6am.

Some were waiting outside the famous seaside course an hour earlier, determined to secure a prime spot at the first tee.

Hometown favourite Darren Clarke teed it all off, hitting the first Major championship golf shot in Northern Ireland for 68 years.

One tournament official suggested there had never been a bigger crowd for the first shot of an Open.

The roars that greeted Clarke’s opening drive followed him for all 18 holes as he recorded an admirable level-par 71.

One of the proudest onlookers was Clarke’s father Godfrey.

He said: “It was great, a very good experience. There was obviously a bit of pressure on him hitting the first tee shot but I think overall he’ll be happy enough.”

He joked that his son was initially a bit dubious about being asked to hit the opening shot of the tournament, given that at the Masters at Augusta it is performed by the “old boys” of the game.

Mr Clarke said at Portrush the honour was more a nod to the efforts his son had put in to bring the Open back over the Irish Sea for the first time since 1951.

If Clarke’s opening birdie gave the Open a glorious start, McIlroy’s tournament was all but over as he walked off the first green with an ignominious eight on his card.

It was a hole that, bizarrely, included a wayward drive that struck and broke the phone of a woman who works in his hometown of Holywood, Co Down.

Afterwards, McIlroy conceded his first thought after the calamitous opener was “what else can go wrong”.

Unfortunately for the four-time Major winner, the answer came on the 16 and 18th, with a double and triple bogey that effectively ended his chances of a fairytale win.

Darren Clarke tees off the first hole
Darren Clarke tees off the first hole

For former Strictly Come Dancing judge Len Goodman, who was among the fans, McIlroy’s score on the 18th was one “SEVEN” he was unlikely to have taken pleasure in.

It was the same for fellow local star Graeme McDowell, born and bred in Portrush, who also ended with Goodman’s favourite number after a promising early start.

Among the crowds at Royal Portrush were a number of stars from other sporting codes.

Recently retired former Northern Ireland football captain Aaron Hughes was enjoying a summer without pre-season training as he watched the world’s best bisecting the first fairway.

“It’s really exciting, just looking around the place and the atmosphere in the place is just brilliant,” he said.

“I feel like a kid coming to watch it.

“Obviously you want to see the local lads to do well. For me I just like watching golf, so even just seeing all the big American stars, watching how they strike they ball, it’s great.”

No star is as big as Tiger Woods and there were massive cheers at around 3pm when he strode onto the first tee, with crowds six or seven deep straining for a vantage point on fairway as the 15-time Major winner fired his opening tee shot into the left rough.

Thousands surged after him, with huge galleries who had followed the homegrown stars in the morning adjusting their sights for an afternoon Tiger hunt.

The banks of excited faces were swiftly covered by a sea of umbrellas, though, as the heavens opened once again, leaving Woods’ legion of fans struggling to catch a glimpse through a forest of nylon canopies.

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy

Wearing stars and stripes from head to toe, the allegiances of Tom Brown were not hard to establish.

Despite rooting for a US winner, the Atlanta man believed the inclement weather might ultimately favour an Irish or British player.

“I take bets every Major with a friend and I loaded up on the Irish, the Scottish and the English because I think the weather is coming in,” he said.

Mr Brown was attending his first Open Championship and he was not disappointed by the experience.

“The Northern Irish are great people, very hospitable,” he said.

“This is my first Open and I came because it was at Portrush. Because I don’t think I will be alive to see another one here. It’s a gorgeous country and great people.”

There are around 300 police officers on duty throughout the week to ensure the Open’s return to Northern Ireland passes off without incident.

Their presence remained low-key on Thursday, with the most high-profile incident occurring when a police car was caught by a TV camera stuck in the sand on a nearby beach.

Later in the day, a roaming beagle made its way up from the same beach onto the sixth tee, oblivious to stewards’ urgings to stay behind the ropes.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods

Elsewhere, other police officers posed for selfies with a troupe of golf fans wearing the loudest of loud trousers.

Living in the mountains of North Carolina, Reed Finney might be used to rugged terrain, but he still found the dunes of Portrush a sizeable challenge.

“We were at Carnoustie last year and St Andrews in 2015, but this is by far the best course and the hardest walk,” he said.

“It’s an awesome country. We’ve had such a great time.”

Unlike the thousands travelling in from all corners of Northern Ireland every day, Mr Finney bagged accommodation a short walk from the course.

“That’s because I booked it a year ago,” he smiled.

Among the local fans was Liz Nixon, a member of Northern Ireland’s other world-famous course, Royal County Down.

She swapped the Mourne Mountains for the Causeway Coast for a chance to watch the world’s best in the flesh.

“Absolutely super, really brilliant, there is a great buzz about everything, marvellous,” she said.

“It’s nice to see the people in person rather than just on the television. I think I won’t be able to see some of the shots, the distance they hit it.”