PORTRUSH: Northern Ireland’s long wait to host the Open Championship comes to an end on Thursday as golf’s oldest tournament gets underway outside of Scotland and England for the first time since 1951 at Royal Portrush.
A local and former champion Darren Clarke will hit the first tee shot of the 148th Open at 6.35am local time (0535 GMT) with the star attraction of Tiger Woods (1410 GMT) and home favourite Rory McIlroy (0909 GMT) to come later in the day for record crowds.
Organisers estimate that 237,750 spectators will take in the action before Sunday’s fourth and final round, making the return to Portrush the second-highest attended tournament in the championship’s history.
“Big-time sport needs big-time crowds and we certainly have that at Royal Portrush as we stage the biggest sporting event ever to be held in Northern Ireland,” said the R&A’s chief executive Martin Slumbers on Wednesday.
A return to Northern Ireland was ruled out for many years by “The Troubles” – a 30-year period of politically and religiously motivated violence.
However, The Good Friday agreement, a peace deal reached in 1998, paved the way for a brighter future for the region, and McIlroy hailed sport’s role as a unifying force.
“Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together. We all know that this country sometimes needs that,” said the world number three.
“To be able to have this tournament here again, I think it speaks volumes of where the country and where the people that live here are now.”
McIlroy ending his five-year wait to add to his four major titles would be the fairytale ending come Sunday afternoon.
He shot the course record of 61 at Portrush as a 16-year-old prior to a revamp for its return to the Open rota, with two new holes created.
However, McIlroy hopes the buzz around the tournament means he will not feel the pressure once play gets underway.
“I’m from Northern Ireland and I’m playing at home, but I don’t see myself as that centre of attention,” he added.
“This is a wonderful thing for this country and golf in general.”
Woods would normally command the biggest following, particularly after ending his 11-year wait to win a 15th major at the Masters in April.
The 43-year-old American’s form since has tempered expectations that he could lift the Claret Jug for a fourth time on Sunday, particularly with inclement weather forecast that could stiffen up his troublesome back.
But Woods has drawn inspiration from old-timers Tom Watson and Greg Norman, who both came close to winning the Open in their 50s in 2009 and 2008 respectively.
“The great thing is playing in an Open Championship, you can do it. Look what Tom did at Turnberry, what Greg did at Birkdale,” said Woods.
“The golf course is fast enough, even if you don’t have the speed to carry the ball.”
Yet, it is world number one Brooks Koepka who looks like the man to beat having won in four of his last nine major appearances and finishing in the top two of all three majors so far this year.
Koepka is yet to win the Open Championship, but will be helped by some local knowledge himself this week as his caddie Ricky Elliott is a Portrush native.
“I definitely have a little bit more confidence having him on the bag this week,” said Koepka.
“Every hole I just step up on, ‘You tell me what to do, you’ve played it more than anybody’.”