Ben Lowry: The crowd cheered Rory McIlroy, one of our Northern Ireland sporting greats

An expectant crowd watches Rory McIlroy chip from the rough on the 17th hole in the Open at Royal Portrush in a crucial moment last evening. "Even the way that he failed  ' seeming to be defeated by nerves at the huge task he had set himself of winning at home 'showed a vulnerable side to someone who can be supremely confident in his own gifts," writes Ben Lowry  Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Wire
An expectant crowd watches Rory McIlroy chip from the rough on the 17th hole in the Open at Royal Portrush in a crucial moment last evening. "Even the way that he failed ' seeming to be defeated by nerves at the huge task he had set himself of winning at home 'showed a vulnerable side to someone who can be supremely confident in his own gifts," writes Ben Lowry Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Wire
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Last evening, at 7.45pm, I scrambled up a grassy path, amid the dunes of Royal Portrush.

It seemed as if it was already dusk, due to the rain darkened skies, but in fact it was two hours before sunset.

A crowd of people was almost tumbling down the wide dune path, in the opposite direction to me.

I was rushing towards the 17th tee, where Rory McIlroy was about to play his penultimate hole.

They were surging towards the other end of the hole, in anticipation of a great finish by him on the green.

Despite having been at the Open championship venue from 7am, I had been working on today’s newspaper for much of the day and so was unable to follow the entirety of the Holywood golfing star’s 18 holes.

It didn’t seem to matter — he was already as good as out of the tournament.

As Rory had himself conceded on Thursday evening, after his disastrous opening day, he had little prospect of success.

But as his second round progressed, the Northern Irish player made excellent progress, finishing several holes in one under par (‘birdying’, for those readers who do not follow golf).

And so, as word of this comeback was relayed on TV and media to the hospitality suites, I rushed out to try to catch McIlroy’s final holes.

As I walked briskly past the 18th hole towards the 17th, at points glimpsing over the golf course’s multiple small hills and out towards the north coast, I heard a huge roar coming from the still distant 16th hole.

The word rippled through the crowds at the later holes that Rory had birdied again, and was no down to two over. This meant that he might ‘make the cut’, and progress with the best golfers to the last two days of this massive sporting event.

The triumph was all the greater given that Rory had messed up badly with a simple putt at the very same hole, the 16th, on Thursday — a miss that he described as “inexcusable”.

This was how I found myself rushing towards the 17th tee, to see him play the entirety of what might be two of the most crucial holes of his career.

If he could get either of the last two holes in three shots, instead of their par of four, he would make the final two days, and perhaps display some of his unreliable genius in the massive sporting contest that he played such a key role in bringing to Northern Ireland.

The vast crowd that was coming down the path, moving against me, were Rory fans, who were prepared to forgo witnessing his tee shot, so that they could instead to get closer to the green, and be in a good vantage point if he succeeded there.

He almost did, coming within inches of a putt that would have brought him one under par, and qualification for Saturday and Sunday’s elite group.

The crowd roared Rory at every stage —as he arrived on the 17th tee, after he hit his first shot, when he strode down the fairway, as he came near to the flag on the green, and after he missed — albeit clapping and shouting their support only after gasping in disappointment after that narrowest of failures.

As Rory then walked to the 18th hole, and the tall task of getting a one-under in the final hole, there were cheers and shouts of ‘Come on Rory’.

In a day that had been marked by its international flavour, with golfing fans from all over the world packing the Royal Portrush course, there was a particularly Ulster complexion to this core of early evening enthusiasts.

Rory is our great sporting hope. The man who transcends so many barriers: the lad from a Catholic background who grew up in the heart of that most British parts of Northern Ireland, North Down (having been to Sullivan Upper school myself, I am chuffed that he is one of the alumni), a man who long ago moved beyond the tribal divide, strutting the international sporting stage, having married an American woman.

By the time Rory walked towards the green on the 18th hole last night, he had hit a poor second shot, and it looked unlikely that he would go under par as he needed.

The crowds lining the fairway cheered him as he past, and then as he approached the huge stand that wraps around that last green, the audience there rose to their feet.

They knew by then he probably wasn’t going to do it but, wow, everyone wanted to give him a send-off.

McIlroy, to an even greater extent than the two brilliant major winners and fellow Northern Ireland amdbassadors, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, put our small corner of the world on the golfing map.

Recently he had spoken with pride about his “small role”in returning the Open to Royal Portrush after 68 years.

As he knows, he was in fact of the core reasons why the R&A could barely do other than come back to the Co Antrim venue.

Rory has given this Province much joy.

Even the way that he failed — seeming to be defeated by nerves at the huge task he had set himself of winning at home —showed a vulnerable and human side to someone who can be supremely confident in his own gifts.

But Rory is still only 30.

The Open will probably be back in Northern Ireland by the time he is 40.

And Clarke lifted its Claret Jug at the age of 42.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

• In Monday’s News Letter, Ben Lowry reports on various international fans of golf that he spoke to yesterday at Royal Portrush yesterday, including the children of the American golfer Tom Lehman