PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — One by one by one around here, people keep reporting a peculiar disconnect between the eyes and the brains. The eyes keep reporting that the British Open has returned to this gasp of a coastline for the first time in 68 years, 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement tempered 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, the list of bombings still shocking in breadth.
The brains keep straining to comprehend.
Surely Northern Ireland and Royal Portrush Golf Club could not be about to conduct this 148th Open with booming crowds headed up the narrow roads and foreign souls landing nonchalantly in Belfast. Surely it couldn’t be right that Portrush resident Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open champion whose hometown clubhouse suffered chronic bombings, would tee off at 6:35 a.m. today in 2019 to christen a four-day tournament, and that a politician who helped make it happen would deem the shot “one of the most significant and proud moments in our wee country’s history.”
It’s another case of how a place greets a world through sport.
“You think about at that stage when everything that was going on, whether we were ever going to have a tournament such as this,” said Clarke, 50, referring to “the Troubles,” the conflict that roiled Northern Ireland for those three decades. “It was beyond the realms of possibility. It was just never going to happen.”
“Certainly when I was a kid, the idea that you could have something like this happen here, just, it would never happen, would never happen,” said John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism Northern Ireland, a tricky job in a world full of humans who form fears rapidly and dispel them slowly. People his age (57), he said, were “used to year after year of bad news.”
“Even driving in yesterday,” said Rory McIlroy, the four-time major winner raised near Belfast, 50 miles southeast, and who famously shot 61 at age 16 at Royal Portrush, “when you’re coming in on the road and you look to the right and you’ve got the second tee, I think like, I don’t know who was teeing off, maybe [the top-20 player] Tony Finau and someone else, and sort of strange to see them here.”
After all, this used to be an actual joke. Golfers from Northern Ireland such as Graeme McDowell, Clarke and McIlroy used to “give a little bit of ribbing,” McDowell said, to Peter Dawson, the former chief of the Royal & Ancient, which oversees the Open. “Why can’t we go track to Portrush?” they’d josh, aware of the stress it might cause.
Soon, this smallest of the four British nations (1.8 million, or 3% of the population) saw those players three win four of the six majors between the 2010 U.S. Open and the 2011 British Open. Soon, Northern Ireland calmed still further, and Portrush drew astounding crowds to the 2012 Irish Open, 17 years after holding the first of its six Senior British Opens. Soon, McDowell said, “The jokes turned kind of serious.”
On Oct. 20, 2015, this week in July 2019 became bestowed.
“I’ve never seen the town look so great,” said McDowell, who grew up here.
The town does look almost movie-settish. It’s polished but not stuffy. It’s fish-and-chips shops, arcades, a handsome harbor teeming with revelers, the obligatory Ferris wheel. It’s a peninsula with three beaches and plural surf shops. Banners state, “Northern Ireland: Made for Golf.” Locals might tell which golf stars turn up in, say, the Harbour Bar, next to the boats and the Portrush lifeboat station, whose mission has rescued people since 1842.
It feels like a normal Open town, with the “normal” most welcome.
In recent years, “I see a lot of Americans and French and Germans and it’s fantastic,” said Patricia Quigley, who works in a fine gift shop on the main street, which she crosses to work another job in a popular restaurant. “We see a lot of Americans here now.” Born and raised in Portrush, a town of maybe 7,000, she said, “Now we’re in the newspapers and media for the right reasons. Today’s a different day. Tomorrow’s going to be another day. Don’t look back. Today’s a very good day.”
Store windows and banners and video screens tout McDowell (the local lad), Clarke (the man raised 35 miles south in Dungannon but living here), McIlroy (the man who shot the course-record 61 here) and maybe even Ricky Elliott (the caddie who grew up here, lives in Florida and shepherds the great Brooks Koepka).
The whole thing has the town “chuffed,” Quigley said.
Apparently that goes for all of Northern Ireland and the visitors who once may have feared it: “I can confirm to you this morning that this week we’ll see our biggest attendance outside of St. Andrews, with 237,750 spectators, which surpasses the 235,000 we saw at Birkdale in 2017,” said Clive Brown, chairman of the Open Championship Committee.
“I think the [club] members have been wonderful to work with and they have all shared, all of them have shared, ‘How do we put Royal Portrush on the global map?’ “ said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the Royal & Ancient. “And the Open is the way that we’re doing it. Yes, we’re going to celebrate the fact that we’ve had some fantastic Irish golfers in the last few years. But this championship will be watched in 600 million households over the coming days, all around the world. And that profile will bring into households this course many people have never heard of, and this beautiful landscape.”
He said, “I have never been to an Open Championship where so many people, as I’m walking around, which I do every day, have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you for what you have done.’”
Vowed McGrillen: “There’s not one person in this country who’s not proud of the fact that this is here. I’ve never heard anything talked about so much in my 57 years in Northern Ireland. I’m not even sure there was the positive around the Good Friday Agreement as there has been around this.”
Said McDowell, “I expected a great welcome. I didn’t expect the buzz from the fans and just how genuinely happy and proud and excited they are to have this great golf tournament in this part of the world. I was on the first tee [Tuesday for a practice round], felt like there were 10,000 people on the first tee. Amazing atmosphere. A little nervous for a Tuesday. I couldn’t believe it, really.”
The Portrush native McDowell, 39, didn’t share any stories of the Troubles, which left Portrush only lightly touched, if one can say that of a place where six bombs went off on Aug. 3, 1976. (No one was injured.) Clarke, 50, and McIlroy, 30, epitomize the generations.
On Monday, Clarke retold the story of working at age 18 in a hotel bar in Dungannon, his hometown. He was helping set up the bar when a bomb threat came. In his autobiography, he told it: “The phoned warning was the same old story we’d heard over and over again, but we always took them seriously because you never knew ... Usually we’d wait outside until the premises were declared safe, but almost as soon as everybody got outside, the bomb went off — and what a blast there was. It was five to 10 [at night] and the nightclub was completely flattened. Just 20 minutes after the alert, it disappeared along with half of the hotel.”
The golf clubhouse at Dungannon, he told the Belfast Telegraph, was “probably the most-bombed clubhouse in Northern Ireland,” such that, “I think [the Irish Republican Army] used to use it for bombing practice.”
Next comes McIlroy, who told Wednesday of watching the 2014 British movie “ ’71,” about a British soldier stationed at the Palace Barracks in Holywood, “which is literally 500 yards from where I grew up,” McIlroy said, soon adding, “And I remember asking my mom and dad, ‘Is this actually what happened?’ ”
He spoke of today, when “no one cares who they are, where they’re from, what background they’re from, but you can have a great life and it doesn’t matter what side of the street you’re from.”
Complications remain. The 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee died in April of a gunshot wound suffered during fighting between police and dissidents in Derry. The R&A does plan normal Open security, with a no-fly zone, but it’s a distant departure from when McGrillen, the tourism official, attended Queen’s University in Belfast in the early 1980s, with heavy security everywhere, for every shop.
It’s no wonder brains, especially the vintage ones, struggle to process an actual Open in Northern Ireland, of which McGrillen said, “I think it’s a sign of how far Northern Ireland has really moved on the last 20 years.”