‘It’s like there’s been a big party in Northern Ireland’

Amid smiles, Hawaiian shirts and Olé, Olé, Olé, Shane Lowry raises the Claret Jug

Shane Lowry hits from the rough on the final day of the  Open Golf Championship at Royal Portrush. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Shane Lowry hits from the rough on the final day of the Open Golf Championship at Royal Portrush. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

 

At the 18th hole, the Irish were waiting. All day it felt like magic was in the making at Royal Portrush; the first British Open golf championship to be held on Irish soil in almost 70 years, and the prospect of an Irish winner.

Shane Lowry effectively sealed his victory on the 15th hole; by the time he was at the 17th, his name was already being etched onto the Claret Jug. Liz McCartney, ladies’ captain at Royal Portrush, was watching. “We knew he couldn’t be caught, so we thought, just engrave it now.”

As the champion-elect approached the final hole, the cheers of the crowd – and the choruses of Olé Olé Olé – reverberated around the course, as if tracking his progress. Lowry raised his hands aloft; thousands welcomed him home.

Behind one of the many Tricolours fluttering along the course was Ferdia O’Flaherty from Co Donegal.

“It was the first thing I put in the car this morning,” he admits. “I’ve got good use for it anyway.”

He is breathless with excitement.

“The home boy won it. The first time back in Ireland in 68 years, what more do you want?”

All week officials, players and spectators remarked on the hospitality, the friendliness, and the warmth of the Northern Ireland venue; as the trophy was awarded, it was first to be acknowledged.

Royal Portrush had given “an Irish welcome to an incredible Open”, the crowd was told; holding the Claret Jug aloft, Lowry thanked the spectators for their support. “To have an Open championship here on the island of Ireland is amazing,” he said.

Of the more than 200,000 spectators who came to Portrush for the Open, more than half of ticket sales were to people from outside Northern Ireland.

‘No borders’

On the course, accents from all over Ireland mingle with Scottish, American and Australian tones; if they have one thing in common, it is their insistence that talk of a border does not belong here.

“There are no borders in golf,” is an oft-repeated phrase.

“Golf is an all-Ireland sport,” explains Michael Callaghan, from Strabane, Co Tyrone.

Brian and Mary O’Higgins from Oranmore, Co Galway, at the Open. Photograph: Freya McClements
Brian and Mary O’Higgins from Oranmore, Co Galway, at the Open. Photograph: Freya McClements

“Protestants and Catholics have always played golf together, and that’s the way it should be. It’s not a Protestant sport or a Catholic sport, it’s a universal sport, which unites people through their love of golf. Sport breaks down barriers.

“In the absence of Rory [McIlroy], obviously this is the next best thing. Everyone loves Shane Lowry.”

Not quite everybody. Two men wear jackets with the Northern Ireland football team logo: “We’ll tell you what we think as long as we don’t have to give our names,” they tell The Irish Times.

“To be totally honest, it’s the first time in 70 years the Open’s been here and it’s a bit galling to see all the Tricolours out. I’ve a Red Hand of Ulster here in my bag, just in case,” he explains.

Both stress that this is not meant in a sectarian way, and they’re happy to see Lowry win. “It’s just that it’s sort of Northern Ireland’s moment in the sun. We’d have loved to have seen Rory in the final.

“But there’s been absolutely no aggression here – even McIlroy said he’ll play for Ireland in the Olympics and nobody thinks any less of him for that. There’s pretty much no divide any more.”

Friends David McCrossan and Lee Marshall agree. From Lisburn, Co Antrim, they have made their own hats for the occasion – green berets fashioned into greens and sporting their own golf ball and tee.

Supporters at Shane Lowry’s home golf club, Esker Hills Golf Club, Tullamore, Co Offaly, celebrate his victory. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/PA
Supporters at Shane Lowry’s home golf club, Esker Hills Golf Club, Tullamore, Co Offaly, celebrate his victory. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/PA

“There’s been such a fantastic atmosphere,” says McCrossan. “It couldn’t have been any better, it’s electric.

‘An Irish winner’

“There’s been plenty of fans here from the South and they’ve been amazing. We’ve adopted Shane, the North is sharing him.”

“There’s never been a need to bring North and South together in sport because there’s never been that divide,” emphasises Marshall. “In football yes people support individual teams, but in golf people are embraced regardless of where they’re from. This is sport – there’s no reason to bring politics into it.

“Here it doesn’t matter who’s walking down the 18th, they’ll always get that reception, though it was fantastic to see an Irish winner.”

Niall Morrissey, Stuart Mackenzie-Smyth, Denis Rosnon and James Carroll at Royal Portrush on Sunday. Photograph: Freya McClements
Niall Morrissey, Stuart Mackenzie-Smyth, Denis Rosnon and James Carroll at Royal Portrush on Sunday. Photograph: Freya McClements

Prize for the bravest costume of the day went to Stephen McGrath and his friends.

In the wind and rain on the course, their Hawaiian shirts and sunhats attracted plenty of attention.

“Well somebody’s got to dress for the weather you want,” says McGrath.

They are all from Belfast; some see themselves as British, some as Irish. “We don’t think there’s any difference – it doesn’t come into it,” he explains. “Not for our generation anyway. It’s not what we’ve grown up with. We’re beyond that – nobody cares any more.”

Lowry is unaware that, as Open champion, he has more coming to him than simply the Claret Jug or the prize money. “We’re going to present him with one of our shirts.”

Robert Barry, the Royal Portrush captain, has already made a presentation; he had the honour of awarding Lowry the Claret Jug. “It was surreal,” he admits. “I’ve never stood in front of a crowd of that sort of size before.”

McCartney was alongside him. “My face is sore smiling,” she says. “I’m so full of pride at how everything’s gone.

“It’s like there’s been a big party in Northern Ireland, everyone has been beaming from ear to ear, and Ireland in general has come out of this wonderfully.

“To have an Irish winner is the icing on the cake.”

As the crowd filters home from Royal Portrush, the smiles say it all. The slogan on one Irish flag speaks for all: “Pure magic.”