As a child of Northern Ireland, David Feherty has a sense of what is coming when the Open Championship returns next week to Royal Portrush on the edge of the North Atlantic.
This is no ordinary Open Championship, if there is such a thing. This one has been 68 years in the making, since the day Max Faulkner won the Claret Jug at Portrush in 1951, through the Troubles that painted the country in blood and anger and, finally, through the insistent dream of many that the course and the country were deserving of this moment.
“It is colossal for the people of Northern Ireland,” said Feherty, whose golf career took root in his homeland and whose accent remains even as he has become an American citizen and golf commentator planted firmly in Dallas, Texas.
“To have the Open there is remarkable. It is an indication of how far things have come since the Good Friday Agreement.”
That agreement, signed in 1998, brought peace to the region after years of bitter and deadly religious and political fighting that took the lives of more than 3,500 people.
The two decades since then, along with the international rise of Pádraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell – Harrington from Ireland, and the latter three from Northern Ireland – helped push the championship outside its more traditional homes in Scotland and England.
It required the building of a new train station, the installation of state-of-the-art fiber-optic cables, improved roads and multiple other modernizing upgrades in anticipation of the first sold-out Open Championship with more than 215,000 fans expected for the week.
The world will see Royal Portrush’s spectacular Dunluce Links, long considered one of the finest links in the world, fully introduced on the international stage. The addition of two new holes in recent years has further enhanced the brawny, windblown layout that is as handsome as it is challenging.
“The whole field is going to be blown away by this golf course,” Feherty said. “It’s exquisite. It’s enigmatic.”
“They have done a fabulous job with this course. … You have to mold yourself to the slopes. You can lose your dog in the rough, not to mention your ball.” – David Feherty
With the ancient ruins of Dunluce Castle nearby, Portrush bumps and rolls between the edge of the small town and the ocean. Its most significant shortcoming – two relatively weak finishing holes – was addressed when what are now the new seventh and eighth holes were built on land previously used on the adjacent Valley Course.
It’s a layout that seems designed to create a dramatic finish with the famous par-3 16th hole (formerly the 14th) nicknamed Calamity Corner for a reason. It requires an uphill tee shot of more than 220 yards over a disappearing hillside to a green that looks dangerously slender and far away.
“They have done a fabulous job with this course,” Feherty said. “Calamity Corner is one of the great par-3s in golf. I think the players will fall in love with it. There isn’t a level lie on (the course). You have to mold yourself to the slopes. You can lose your dog in the rough, not to mention your ball.”
Upon seeing the Open-ready Portrush recently, McIlroy proclaimed the course spectacular while understanding his unique part in the soon-to-unfold story. It was at Portrush that McIlroy’s legend gathered momentum after he shot 61 as a 16-year-old in a qualifying round for the 2005 North of Ireland Amateur Open.
Having won twice this year but without a major championship victory in five years, McIlroy will arrive as the emotional favorite as well one of the betting favorites.
Feherty said whatever local knowledge McIlroy, Clarke and McDowell have at Portrush will be offset by the level of expectations that will come with playing for the Claret Jug in their homeland.
“It’s an extra burden on them,” Feherty said.
“I expect (McIlroy) to win more majors. I don’t think anyone has made the game look more beautiful than Rory when he’s playing well. It would be a colossal story if he were to get into contention and win.
“He’s the poster child of Irish golf and has been for a while. There’s a lot of love for him over there.”
Then there’s Tiger Woods, who will get his first look at Portrush when he arrives prior to the Open Championship. Since winning the Masters in April, Woods has made just three starts with indifferent results.
Feherty, who has walked alongside Woods during many of his most significant victories, isn’t certain what to expect from him at the Open Championship.
“He sticks to a plan and I think a good deal will depend on the weather there,” Feherty said. “We may get some true Open weather there. I hope we do.
“Tiger is not renowned as a great bad-weather player. I’ve said the only mistake I’ve ever made about Tiger Woods is underestimating him but he’s an unknown quantity at the moment.”
The Claret Jug by the fifth green at Royal Portrush Golf Club. Photo: Rebecca Naden, Reuters
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