Darren Clarke on British Open at Royal Portrush: 'You could never envisage anything of this magnitude being held in Northern Ireland'
The Open Championship makes a return to Royal Portrush after nearly seven decades. The 2011 champion Clarke will have the distinction off teeing off first when the action gets under way on Thursday
Darren Clarke will stand on the first tee on the first day of the 148th British Open on Thursday, and hit the tournament’s first shot.
And the magnitude of the moment will presumably hit him harder than almost anyone else in the 156-man field.
Golf’s oldest major returns to Royal Portrush Golf Club for the first time in nearly seven decades – only its second time to Northern Ireland in all - and Clarke's connection to the place is obvious.
From the 36 years spent as a club member. From the family residence that overlooks one of the sport’s most acclaimed courses. From the friendly faces in his adopted hometown, with whom he chews the fat when not what must feel thousands of miles away, both literally and figuratively, at his other residence in the Bahamas. From the practice tee, built specifically for him, “down the back there”.
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From the Claret Jug he won, finally, at Royal St George’s in 2011 and the replica he promptly donated. The trophy perches proudly in the Royal Portrush clubhouse, on the right-hand side just as you walk in. For company, it has Clarke’s gold medal and the same won by Fred Daly, Open champion in 1947 and Northern Ireland’s first major winner.
It’s a vivid reminder of the link the player shares with both club and tournament.
“My Claret Jug’s there, in the special alarmed cabinet they built,” Clarke said. “If I had it, it would be up in the house in a drawer somewhere. I’m not one of the guys who has everything out.
“Was just to let Royal Portrush borrow it, so that anyone who walks into the clubhouse can see it. It’s pretty cool.”
Cool could describe 6.35am on Thursday local time, and not just in reference to the breeze blowing off the North Channel that connects the Irish Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. On Monday, it was announced that Clarke would hit the tournament's opening tee shot, which feels rather fitting.
Born in nearby Dungannon, Clarke began his golfing life, age 11, in Portrush and within two years was playing off three. He met his first wife Heather in the seaside town, raised his two sons there.
So having the honour of opening its second Open Championship is exactly that: an honour. Then again, just being on the first tee of an Open at Royal Portrush was always going to be special.
“Yeah, I have thought about it,” Clarke said sometime before his tee-time was confirmed. “It’ll be wonderful. I was always a proud member. Standing on the first tee, and having been an Open champion, that’ll be pretty awesome.”
Those watching this week would probably phrase it similarly. Because not that long ago they would have ever imagined being in a position to do so. Not when “The Troubles” took grip of the country, the near-30 years of conflict that sustained until the late-1990s, when lives were lost and Northern Ireland closed itself off from the world.
Clarke grew up through that time; he lost family members to the violence. Fortunately, Northern Ireland has emerged from the bombs and the bile, for the most part. Hosting the Open represents another sign of the rebirth.
“The Open is the biggest and best and oldest tournament in the history of our sport, and to have that the spotlight of the golfing world on Royal Portrush is brilliant," Clarke said. "The Open is one of those events that transcends our sport. It’s bigger than golf itself.
“And it's going to be played in a place where not long before that there was political turmoil. You could never ever envisage anything of this magnitude being held in Northern Ireland.”
Before Royal Portush was formalised as host, in 2014, Clarke and countrymen Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy campaigned to the R&A, who organise the Open, to have it reinstated on the tournament rota. McDowell is a Portush native; brother Gary part of greenkeeping staff for more than 20 years.
McIlroy, meanwhile, holds the course record after shooting 61 in 2005, age 16. Consensus dictates, given the alterations to the course since, it will not be broken.
Dublin-born Padraig Harrington, Open champion in 2007 and 2008, was also a vocal voice in pushing Portrush. His major success spurred his three peers from north of the border, with spectacular results: in 13 months across 2010 and 2011, Northern Ireland, home to roughly 1.7 million people, claimed three majors from six.
The 2012 Irish Open staged there proved a prominent factor, too, in convincing then-R&A chief executive Peter Dawson that an Open could indeed follow. Wilma Erskine, secretary and club manager at Royal Portrush since 1984 and throughout the politically charged lean years, was integral.
Still, no doubt Clarke played his part. Even if he is reluctant to emphasise his input.
“It wasn’t just me,” he said. “Everybody involved, from Mr Dawson and Wilma Erskine. It was Rory and 'G-Mac' [McDowell] and Padraig as well.
“But all the stuff the politicians did beforehand to get peace and change Northern Ireland into what it is now. Without their hard work we wouldn’t be where we are, because you just couldn’t have the Open Championship.
“If you’d had even suggested to myself or Padraig or G-Mac years ago that we were going to have the Open Championship we would’ve just laughed. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, that’s never going to happen’. It was unfathomable. So it just shows how far we’ve come on in the country."
The expectation is that will be evident this week. Tickets for the tournament, believed to be 215,000, have sold out for the first time in Open history. Those covering championship rounds went within days of their release. The course has been altered - primarily holes seven, eight, 17 and 18 - in part to move in line with major-championship standard, in part to accommodate the masses.
“It’ll be huge,” Clarke said. “I’ve been at home quite a bit to see the preparation and infrastructure and the change to the golf course. The whole week will be incredible. Tickets sold out, corporate sold out, everything. Which just goes to show how popular the venue is going to be.
"And I’m sure with the numbers attending it’s going to be a massively positive experience for everybody that’s there, for Northern Ireland, for Ireland in general. It’s going to be huge to highlight the fact we’ve one of the best golf courses in the world and all of a sudden it’s back on the Open rota and people are getting to see it.
“Your viewing figures are not just European Tour, not just PGA Tour; they’re global. Those pictures are going all over the world.”
Clearly, Clarke would love to cap a momentous week with a major triumph. At 50, and with disappointing results recently on the PGA Champions Tour, he knows he is far from favourite for a second Claret Jug, no matter the guaranteed support.
The past few weeks have been spent playing tour guide with those more fancied to contend, with Justin Rose and Adam Scott among the players leaning on Clarke's decades of local knowledge. Practice partners have not been difficult to come by.
Choosing a winner come Sunday, though? That's an altogether different matter.
"It's a tough one, but somebody’s going to have to play very, very well," Clarke said. "Royal Portrush is a course that rewards people who hit the ball on the fairway. Unlike other places on the Open rota, if you hit ball on fairway invariably it will stay there.
"But if you do miss the fairways it’s a massive penalty. It’s just hay, hills and reload. It’s a nightmare. You will not get away with anything. If you start hitting it sideways forget about it, there’s no point going. Because you won't get around the golf course.
"So it’s going to reward someone who has the ability to play it smart. In saying that, length is going to be a factor. But it’s like any links, like any Open Championship: it depends on the weather. That’s the crux. With some inclement weather, it will be an incredible test. For my chances, I'd welcome that."
Darren Clarke is an ambassador for watch manufacturers Audemars Piguet.
Updated: July 17, 2019 11:27 AM