PORTRUSH, NORTHERN IRELAND | What if, after 68 empty and often angry years, the takeaway from this Open Championship at Royal Portrush is a simple one:
When will it happen again?
Before the first official shot is struck in this championship – appropriately hit by Darren Clarke, one of the patron saints of Irish and Northern Irish golf along with Pádraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell – there’s an undeniable feeling that the Open Championship has rediscovered an abandoned treasure.
Already, two more Opens have been promised to Portrush, although the years are not yet locked into place.
There were reasons for the Open’s absence, of course, the most serious being the turbulence that tormented this otherwise enchanting corner of the world for decades. The hateful edge has softened, though the locals will tell you old grudges linger, and there is a joy about the place this week and not just because a Ferris wheel is visible from the golf course.
“To see them being as brave as they have been to bring it up here has been wonderful,” said Clarke, who knows first-hand how things used to be.
In 1986, Clarke was working at a Portrush bar, setting up for the evening business. Around 8:30 p.m., there was a tip that someone had placed a bomb in the building. By 9 p.m., the bar was gone.
“That was life in Northern Ireland,” Clarke said.
This week, there is a sense of celebration, the anticipation turning to excitement now that the world has come here. Golf trips – to Portrush, to Portstewart, to Ballyliffin and Castlerock and others – are one of the byproducts of this Open Championship, fueling bucket lists around the world.
Over the past weekend, the weather was spectacular with sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70s, filling this seaside town with beachgoers and spectators eager to get an early look at the scene. Sunscreen (available with the Claret Jug logo) was in high demand.
The weather is turning more familiar this week – cooler, breezy temperatures with spitting rain from time to time – and the prospect of seeing Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and McIlroy, Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler make their way through the dunes here is enticing. It’s why this is the first official sellout in Open Championship history.
“It’s just amazing it’s been this long that it’s taken for us to come back here. It’s such a great venue,” Woods said.
Justin Thomas is infatuated with Portrush.
“This is only my fourth Open, but I would say it’s my favorite venue that I’ve been to thus far. It’s a beautiful, beautiful course. I’m sure the weather has something to do with that, it’s definitely helped,” Thomas said.
“But I feel that it’s just a great test of golf. It has a little bit of everything.”
There is always an element of uncertainty with links golf, the capriciousness of the weather and the uneven terrain conspiring to add unpredictability to the best laid plans.
Unlike the more familiar courses in the Open rota, Portrush is forcing players to be quick studies, learning their way around a layout that asks simple questions but grades on an unforgiving scale. Looking for a bit of insight, Woods texted Koepka to congratulate him on his recent run in major championships while also proposing a practice round together this week, knowing Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott, grew up playing Portrush.
“I’ve heard nothing,” Woods said Tuesday with a grin that suggested he appreciated Koepka’s gamesmanship.
Leave it to Koepka to simplify the process. He excels at minimizing distractions and finding the essence of what he’s trying to accomplish, whether it’s on the practice tee or on the course.
In their first few trips around Portrush, Elliott didn’t have to tell Koepka the obvious: avoid the bunkers.
“In links golf, that’s all I’m trying to do,” Koepka said. “I feel like that’s the biggest penalty or the biggest mistake.”
Koepka also spent time last weekend getting a tour of Portrush from Elliott, visiting with his caddie’s family and seeing the places he’s heard about as they’ve walked fairways together through the years. Koepka said he and Elliott don’t talk golf when he’s playing except the basic details of how far to hit it and where the best miss might be.
There is always an element of uncertainty with links golf, the capriciousness of the weather and the uneven terrain conspiring to add unpredictability to the best laid plans. A bunker that seems oddly placed one day can become an obstacle the next if the wind changes direction. It’s not point and shoot golf where each swing is reduced to a simple yardage. It demands more inventiveness and imagination.
“It will be interesting to see, especially for myself, how some of the best players in the world try to play this golf course,” Clarke said.
“You can try and take it on at your peril, if you want to, or you can try to play smart and take it over corners, but with doing that you need to be very committed to your lines. Because if you’re taking an iron and going over, if you push that five, 10 yards, you’re in thick rough, lost ball.”
A general view of Royal Portrush Golf Club. Photo: Liam McBurney, PA Images via Getty Images
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