Rather like negotiating the Irish Sea in a balsa raft during a tempest, getting the Open Championship back to Portrush has not been plain sailing. For a start there’s that stretch of water to cross with all the heaving paraphernalia that a modern Open requires.
There was a cherished old course that needed to be reconfigured and titivated with the addition of two new holes. Would access for the masses coming through the gates be adequate and where would they all stay? What about the on-going shambles of Brexit and the Irish backstop, an unforeseen political palaver which developed long after the R&A had made the decision to take their flagship championship back to Portrush but subsequently generated plenty of nail-nibbling and head-scratching. And, of course, there was always the lingering concern that the peace in a hitherto troubled land would not hold
But here we are. The 148th Open is upon us and a proud country, one that is rightly proud too of the golfers it has produced, gets to savour its huge moment in the limelight. Since Max Faulkner won the last Open to be staged at Portrush back in 1951, Northern Ireland, ravaged by sectarian violence, has been to hell and back. The return of golf’s most historic championship has provided another layer of soothing balm to the deep wounds as the province continues to move forward with stability, confidence and peace.
Under the grim shadow of The Troubles, everyday life muddled on. So too did golf. As a Dubliner, Padraig Harrington was removed from the terrors of the time. He couldn’t ignore it, though. “I always remember being in a car driving up there to play golf and we had to take a detour outside Warrenpoint or somewhere,” he reflected. “We got to the top of the traffic jam and were told ‘go up here and around’. We asked them what was wrong and they said ‘it’s just a small problem’. It turned out that it was a 500lb bomb on the road. That was the small problem. It’s amazing how they lived with it back then and just got on with their lives. From the south we weren’t used to that.”
1951 Open remembered by Portrush doyen
Despite the grisly backdrop and the divisions, golf, like other sports in Ireland, has always provided a united front. “We went up there and we were welcomed with open arms that you had travelled,” added Harrington.
“I couldn’t have got a warmer welcome up there over the years when I played as an amateur. There was an element of ‘thank you for coming’ They really appreciated that you didn’t judge them. They just got on with their lives. The majority of people are in the middle, they don’t want to see anything going on. They just want to have a future for their kids, no issues and no troubles, like anybody else would want. I really appreciated the welcome. It was fascinating to us.
“You were just playing an event, but they really made a big deal about the guys who travelled and played up north. I played a lot up there, in the North of Ireland Amateur regularly and the Amateur Championship at Portrush (in 1993). We used to arrange matches, just on our own. My club would play with other lads. They’d come down or we’d go up. It was great craic. We had four or five decent players and we would find another club with four or five decent players and we’d have a match, nothing to do with anything. It was great. We’d go to Kelly’s Nightclub (the well-kent Portrush venue). We’ll not get in there next week.”
The Northern Irish boys, like Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, will be carried along by a patriotic mania and will be under such a spotlight, it will like being followed by a super trouper. Harrington won’t mind that. “The other Irish guys may can go a bit more under the radar,” he suggested. “Rory will absorb that (the spotlight) at any major anyway. We will be busy enough minding our own business, but let everyone else have the stress.”
Harrington simply loves the Open. When he won his first Claret Jug in 2007, his embracing of the silverware was so passionate the image just about appeared in a Mills & Boon book. The love affair remains as consuming as ever. “It’s always the biggest event for me and I always feel I have a natural advantage having been brought up on links golf,” he said. “Getting announced on the tee as an Open champion in Ireland might be the only time it happens in my career. Will I get a second one in Ireland? Maybe, but I may not be competitive.
“Some weeks (on tour) you’re not as motivated but for an Open that’s never the case. The fact it’s in Ireland makes it even more special but I think I’d be at saturation point for the Open anyway. I’m already at the point where I can’t try any harder, I can’t give any more. The Open will always have my attention, full stop.”
Not so long ago, the prospect of one of the biggest sporting events on the global calendar taking place in Northern Ireland would have been unthinkable. Times have changed, though. Portrush is preparing to welcome the golfing world.