The eyes of the world will be on Northern Ireland today as the Open Championship officially gets under way in Portrush.
Ulster golfing star Darren Clarke will hit the first ball at 6.35 this morning, setting in motion one of the world’s greatest sporting tournaments and ending years of anticipation.
And the excitement shown by the record crowds at practice days earlier this week is reflected in the fact that the 148th Open Championship – and first at Portrush since 1951 – is the first ever to have fully sold out.
David McMullan, honorary secretary of Royal Portrush and the vice chairman of its championship committee, spoke to the News Letter on the eve of the first round about his pride such an important event is taking place in his home town.
“I think we all know how far Northern Ireland has come in the past 20 to 25 years,” Mr McMullan said.
“Prior to that, something like this simply wouldn’t have been possible and I think that’s part of the driving factor of the excitement. The significance of it, because of where we’ve come from, has really captured the public imagination.”
The competition favourite, Northern Ireland’s own Rory McIlroy, was in a similarly reflective mood during a press conference yesterday.
He described the golf club in Portrush as a “big part” of his childhood and said it was “surreal” to see the world’s best golfers teeing off at a course he knows so well.
“It’s sort of strange to see them here but it’s really cool,” he said. “My first memories of Portrush are coming up here to watch my dad play.
“My dad brought me here on my 10th birthday to play, which was my birthday present. I actually met Darren Clarke for the first time that day.
“Portrush, at least the golf club, has been a really big part of my upbringing. It’s sort of surreal that it’s here.”
McIlroy said the success of Ulster golfers like Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke has helped make the possibility of hosting the Open in Northern Ireland a reality.
“It just sort of shows what we’ve done in terms of players,” he said.
“You know, G-Mac winning the US Open, Darren winning the Open and then some of the success that I’ve had and how Northern Ireland has come on as a country that we’re able to host such a big event here again.”
He added: “I’m delighted that it’s back here, I’m delighted to be a part of it and just excited to tee it up and get going.”
McIlroy, the 2014 Open Championship winner, is set to tee off at 10.09am, less than an hour after his countryman Graeme McDowell who steps up at 9.14am.
Meanwhile, the 148th Open is not likely to be the last at Royal Portrush.
Royal and Ancient chief executive Martin Slumbers told the BBC yesterday that he expects the venue to remain on the Open rota for “many years to come”.
A record 61,000 fans attended the practice days earlier this week, up significantly on the previous record of 52,000 at Hoylake in 2006.
“We are making history with a record attendance for a championship staged outside of St Andrews and the levels of excitement among fans this week have been phenomenal,” Mr Slumbers said. “I think by any stretch this week is a great success.”
David McMullan of Royal Portrush said: “The eyes of the world are on us and there’s a real sense of pride not just in the course but in seeing everyone here having such a great time, and a sense of pride in our country.
“The crowds on the practice days have been massive and at any of the Opens that I’ve been to, I’ve never seen anything like what we’ve had this week. That’s reflective of the whole excitement, the whole build up to the Open.
“I live in Portrush and this has been five years in the making. It’s been the talking point of the town and even the talking point of the Province for the past five years.”
He continued: “I think the fact that it’s the first ever Open that’s ever sold out, in history, shows the interest levels, excitement and enthusiasm. It has really showcased the North Coast and Northern Ireland.”
He added: “There will be no doubt – the Open will come back here.”