British Open gets underway as excitement settles over Portrush golf club
A cheer erupts from the crowd as Darren Clarke makes his way on to the green
First among equals here is Darren Clarke, local player, former Open champion, and the man chosen to tee off first and start the tournament. photogrpah: Ian Walton/Reuters
It’s not yet 6am, but Portrush is awake.
Outside the gates of the Royal Portrush golf club, crowds of people queued to be the first into The British Open.They move through the metal barriers, tickets held aloft for scanning, bags ready for security. The atmosphere is that of fans arriving at a music concert, full of quiet excitement at the prospect of seeing their golfing heroes.
First among equals here is Darren Clarke, local player, former Open champion, and the man chosen to tee off first and start the tournament.
“It’s the biggest moment in Irish golfing history in the last 60 years,” says fan Doug Foster. “To have Darren Clarke teeing off first, a past open Champion, at his home club - I wanted to be part of that.”
He got there early to grab a prime spot; in the front row of the stand overlooking the first tee. Others have the same idea. The stand, which holds 750 people, is almost full by 6.20am; thousands more gather behind the ropes which mark out the course, vying for the best position.
“You have the same problem as me,” one spectator wryly sympathises with The Irish Times. “Five foot nothing.”
The number of spectators is unprecedented; overheard conversations remark on how many fans are present. “That’s the great thing about having it in Ireland, ” says one man in a Royal and Ancient (R&A) golf club jersey. “Everyone’s so enthusiastic. You wouldn’t get this anywhere else.”
“I can’t believe how many people are here,” says Liz McCartney, ladies’ captain at Royal Portrush. “They just keep coming. They’re ten deep in places. I don’t think there has ever been so many people up to watch someone tee-off.
The extent of local support has been part of the success of this first British Open to be held on the island of Ireland in more than 50 years.
During the practice days preceding the beginning of the tournament, the friendliness of spectators, volunteers and staff has been consistently remarked upon.
From Aberdeen, Foster has been to “about eight” Opens.
“I love it here,” he says. “It’s different. The people are friendly - there’s that Irish hospitality, but it’s also the nature of the Open, you have thousands of people here, all mixing together. It’s not like going to watch a football match, when supporters are separated. Here everyone is together, and it creates a fabulous atmosphere.”
Suddenly there is a cheer. Darren Clarke is on the course. Golfer Bonnie McGreevy, who is standing nearby, offers her advice to The Irish Times. The key, it appears, to finding a good view is to try and find a patch of higher ground alongside the course, stand on tiptoe, and hope nobody too tall moves in front.
Clarke’s distinctive silvery hair is visible in the distance. Again, the concert metaphor comes to mind, it is like looking towards the stage at an outdoor gig but without the benefit of big screens.
As the clock beside the tee edges towards 6.35am, the crowds quieten. “This is the big moment,” says golfer Bonnie McGreevy. “Today it’s about the atmosphere, and the players getting the layout of the course.”
Clarke’s club is held aloft; so too are many mobile phones. “I’d be better watching it on the TV,” grumbles one spectator.
Clarke takes a couple of practice swings. The speed and power is impressive. It is not the same as seeing it on screen.
“There we go, he’s on the tee.” Expectation settles on the crowd. Clarke hits the ball. It flies past us, virtually unseen against the early-morning cloud. Applause ripples over the course; heads turn as the spectators follow its path,
“It’s probably in the rough,” says one doubter. “That went a bit right,” is the verdict from another, happier voice.
However, Clarke has made the perfect start; he birdies the first hole, and his first result on the board is one under par. As he sets out on the course, spectators follow - among them, his family.
“It makes you realise”, says McCartney, that “the practice days were very enjoyable and very important, but they were just practice. This is now very real.”
“After all the preparation, all the planning, suddenly, it’s happening.”
The British Open championship is underway.