British Open: New legend ready to be forged on Causeway Coast
Championship could become a battle for survival on famous Portrush links
A view of the 18th grandstand at Royal Portrush on Wednesday. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire.
In these parts, myths and legends are an integral part of the Causeway Coast’s storied DNA. Except, come Sunday, a very real hero will be revealed, one with nerves of steel coursing through his veins most likely; for the challenge presented by the Dunluce links for this 148th British Open, with anticipated poor weather an integral part of the equation, will demand a strong mind and controlled shot-making.
As Graeme McDowell observed of how wind and rain had transformed the course compared to the sunshine and zephyr of the early practice days, “it has turned from a sheep into a wolf!”
In truth, the giddiness and sense of anticipation of recent days has been a little surreal. A bit like the music note played just before the chord itself, the build-up is set to unleash a philharmonic sound over these sand hills, which last held the championship in 1951. This time, the sense of history has been endorsed by the first sell-out attendance for the championship days.
So, before a shot had been struck in anger, the championship was already deemed a success. The point of it all, however, is to unearth a player to hold aloft the Claret Jug on Sunday evening. And if it were to have a fairytale ending, then it would be a G-Mac, or a Darren Clarke, or a Rory McIlroy, or perhaps a Pádraig Harrington or a Shane Lowry.
The question is, will the champion be a home-grown legend, or an invader? Brooks Koepka - on a run so far this year of 2nd-1st-2nd in the Majors - has a leg in the home camp, with Ricky Elliott as his caddie. And Jon Rahm has shown a particular liking for links golf, having won two of the last three Irish Opens. The plotline extends further, with a cast of characters that features Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson, Gary Woodland, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Tiger Woods et al. And beyond, to those of Patrick Cantlay’s ilk.
McIlroy, without a Major win since his US PGA success in 2014, has tiptoed his way into this week with a light schedule designed to arrive in peak form. “I think it’s probably the most consistent period of golf I’ve ever played,” conceded the 30-year-old from Holywood, Co Down, of a season that has seen him claim two wins - in The Players and the Canadian Open - in 14 outings, finishing in the top-10 no fewer than 12 times.
What’s more, the one statistic that McIlroy devours - that of strokes gained - as a barometer of where his game is has him ahead of everyone. “I’m pushing up towards the three mark at this point of the year. If I keep doing that, then the wins will come and everything else just falls into place,” he claimed.
McIlroy recalled how Royal Portrush had been such a big part of his formative years, even if he were something of an interloper when compared to Portrush’s home-grown McDowell and Clarke who moved to the town. “My dad brought me to Portrush for my 10th birthday to play, actually met Darren that day for the first time, which was pretty cool . . . Portrush has been a very big, at least the golf club, has been a big part of my upbringing.”
And that knowledge of the course should, indeed, be a help. In practice on Tuesday, he was playing the third hole and Thomas Bjorn was walking with him. McIlroy played a little draw over the right-hand bunker and the Dane thought it would miss the green. “I wouldn’t have thought that’s where,” said Bjorn to him on arriving to find the ball in the middle of the green.
As McIlroy observed, “I think there’s a lot of approach shots here that are visually a little more intimidating than they play.”
His point was backed up by McDowell. “We know in links golf it’s a lot to do with the wind direction and strength, and a golf course can turn upside down. Holes that played unbelievably short, all of a sudden play unbelievably long. Strategy changes, and you’ve got to be ready for that. I feel like my experiences here should help as this golf course begins to change,” said McDowell, who will be aiming to regain form having missed cuts at both the Irish and Scottish Opens.
In terms of form, Rahm - 3rd-2nd-1st - in his last three tournaments, and the Austrian Bernd Wiesberger - 2nd-1st - in his last two outings, carry momentum into this championship. But, in truth, this examination is unlike any other that any player has faced all season. The rough is up, and the weather is expected to throw in curveballs that will have players thinking on their feet.
Rahm, for one, is ready for whatever is thrown his way. “I don’t think anybody likes playing in cold, rain and wind. Nobody. But it’s days like that where technique, plans, systems, strategies - you’ve got to throw them out the window and survive a round. Each shot is the most important shot, and you have to trust your feel more than anything else . . . it’s more of a mental game than anything else,” said the Basque.
This championship could yet become a battle for survival, yet the huge grandstands which have been constructed amid the sand dunes are set to be packed to the rafters and the sounds - cheers, roars, groans - will likely resound around the old links like never before. For, this is truly huge; a setting fit for legends to be sure.