Home team relishing prospects at Portrush

 

IRISH OPEN:AS GRAEME McDowell has attested, playing in an Irish Open at Royal Portrush – where he grew up playing the game – is like fulfilling a “childhood dream”.

You can be sure the 2010 US Open champion is not alone in feeling such a sentiment, with the result that something rather special hangs in the air ahead of this most anticipated tournament on the Causeway Coast.

Indeed, in a sort of calm before the storm, the very first practice round of yesterday featured local players – newly crowned British amateur champion Alan Dunbar, fledgling professional Paul Cutler and the home club’s own Patrick McCrudden – heading out onto the links. By mid-afternoon, the company included the likes of US PGA champion Keegan Bradley, who flew in from the States after competing in the Travelers championship.

One of Bradley’s first ports of call, so to speak, was to plant himself in the middle of the giant fairway bunker on the 17th hole ... and he also took in some sight-seeing to overcome his jetlag, visiting the nearby Giant’s Causeway.

Yesterday was a day for dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in terms of finalising the field, with US-based Ulsterman Chris Devlin getting the last of the sponsor invites. Devlin, an alternate for the US Open at the Olympic Club two weeks ago where he failed to get into the field, joined Cutler, Niall Kearney, Mark Murphy, John Daly, Shiv Kapur, Dylan Fritelli and Daniel Miernicki (from the same management group as Bradley) in a cosmopolitan invite list.

Devlin’s call-up means a bumper group of 27 Irish golfers – pro and amateur, Major champions to fledgling tour players – will be in the field at the €2 million event on a course which Gareth Maybin yesterday described as being “in the best shape I’ve ever seen it”.

This is a big week for the three Northern Irish Major champions, in particular. Darren Clarke, who has acted as an ambassador for the Irish Open at Portrush, will be especially keen to get his clubs out. The British Open champion has been hampered by a groin strain picked up in a pre-Masters tournament in Houston and hasn’t played since the BMW PGA championship at Wentworth last month.

Clarke, who missed out on the US Open in San Francisco in order to undergo treatment on the injury, returns to action on familiar terrain – his home is a short walk from the course – and, apart from forming the start of a build-up to his defence of the Claret Jug at Royal Lytham and St Annes next month, the Irish Open is a tournament he’d dearly love to add to his CV of victories.

In believing that course familiarity will help, Clarke said: “I’m sure, come Sunday, you’ll see two or three Irish players up there . I have no doubt. The course is going to play firm and fast and it will bring a little more local knowledge into it.

Clarke, who reckons his best score around the Dunluce links is “probably 62,” is of the opinion the weather will dictate the winning score. As ever with a links course, wind will constitute its main defence. Still, he doesn’t see any reason to quibble if someone manages to shoot the lights out. As he put it, “we are in the entertainment industry. People want to come and see us making birdies and eagles and that’s fine by me. Some of the courses where you have four and five-under doesn’t appeal to me.

“If it’s 20-under, great. If it blows 20 miles an hour and 10-under wins, that’s fine too. You’ve got some links courses where the wind blows the prevailing and you have an easy nine and a tough nine. Here, you’ve got different angles. Holes don’t play consistently. Players are going to have options, there’ll be lots of birdies and lots of bogeys as well,” said Clarke.

Clarke, incidentally, has dropped to 81st in the latest world rankings in his period of inactivity. Pádraig Harrington, who looked in danger of slipping out of the top-100 heading into the US Open a fortnight ago, has moved up to 69th on the back of his tied-fourth at the Olympic club and his tied-11th in the Travelers. Rory McIlroy, who yesterday tested a new Titleist driver at his home outside Belfast, remains at number two with McDowell 11th.

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