A hardy lot brave ghastly conditions as golfing greats tee off in Portrush

Fri, Jun 29, 2012, 01:00

THE WEATHER at Royal Portrush golf club yesterday was undecided between grim and ghastly. It settled first for grim, then shifted to ghastly: grey skies, blustery cross-winds, bucketing rain and threatening thunder and lightning.

But the northern golfing confraternity is a hardy lot. They competed with the dreadful conditions with their windcheaters, woolly hats, Wellingtons, mountain boots and brollies and turned out in force to witness some of the world’s golfing greats.

This was the first Irish Open to be held in Northern Ireland since 1953 and the first to be staged at Portrush since 1947; spectators weren’t going to be kept away by the danger of forked lightning shooting down the tips of their umbrellas. Oh no, northerners have come through worse than that.

Still, at 3.05pm play was suspended because of the heavy ordnance up in the clouds. At that stage, Indian player JM Singh was in the lead at seven under. Obviously the organisers didn’t want to lose their only playboy of the eastern world, as well as all the other gilded ones of golf.

Tiger Woods couldn’t make it but there was no shortage of top-class international players. In Portrush were 14 winners of majors, four of them from the island of Ireland; Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Pádraig Harrington.

Minister for Tourism Arlene Foster was kitted out in full golfing kit yesterday morning as the players started heading down the first fairway. But that was more to protect herself from the hard-blowing conditions than any desire to take up the game. “Even if I had an inclination to play golf I could never find the time.” But she was delighted with the turnout and all the positive publicity Northern Ireland was amassing – if only the confounded rain would stop. Still, the comments of three-time major winner Pádraig Harrington, who finished his round on minus five, would have cheered her.

“Royal Portrush is an awesome course,” he said. Now, the Minister must have been thinking, if only the infrastructure could be developed so that a British Open could be held in Northern Ireland.

The biggest crowd yesterday was for Rory McIlroy, who was playing with US PGA winner Keegan Bradley and South African Branden Grace. Among the gallery was his mother Rosie and girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, who the previous day had exited Wimbledon.

Some ungraciously wondered could there be a relationship between the happy state of her love life and the poor state of her tennis form? And even at Portrush we couldn’t get away from handshakes.

First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness were at the course early in the day, again glad-handing, but this time with the likes of Harrington and McDowell at the back of the 18th hole.

It was the Press Association photographer Paul Faith who had been deputed to capture the picture of McGuinness gently gripping the gloved hand of Queen Elizabeth on Wednesday. Yesterday in the press tent and for the sake of posterity, his editor Deric Henderson was photographing Faith shaking McGuinness’s hand.

But then Robinson and McGuinness had to get back to other duties: the Deputy First Minister to speak in Westminster; the First Minister to see if anything could be done to alleviate the flooding hardship in the greater Belfast area and other parts of Northern Ireland.

And where was all that rain coming from? A caller to BBC Radio Ulster’s Gerry Anderson Show had it figured: It was a hardline unionist God’s retribution for the queen shaking hands with McGuinness: “Ulster says Noah.”

But then sometime about 4pm the elements relented: the rain stopped, the storm passed by; there was a hint of sun behind the now less lowering clouds – 40 minutes later the suspension was lifted.

Three more days to stage a sold-out golf tournament and to show Northern Ireland in good light: surely there can’t be any more water left up there, can there?