Northern Ireland news

Excitement builds ahead of Irish Open tee-off in Portstewart

Rory McIlroy said said he believes this year's Irish Open has the potential to be the 'best ever'. Picture by AP

THOUSANDS of golf fans caught their first glimpse of some of the sport's biggest stars yesterday as all roads led to the Irish Open.

Top golfers were in practice mode on the Portstewart course throughout the day as preparations for the tournament were in full swing.

Leading Irish competitors Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell were among those to appear for practice rounds ahead of the start of the tournament tomorrow.

For McDowell, who grew up in Portstewart and played the course as a young boy, it is a welcome return.

But speaking at a press conference, he admitted he may be enjoying his home comforts too much.

"I'm in my mum and dad's house," he said.

"My old room is still in its former shape. My old bed's still there. I'm getting some home cooking, a couple of pints of Guinness and too many rashers of bacon.

"It's definitely the part of the season when I put on four or five pounds."

It's the third time in six years the Irish Open has been held north of the border, with Rory McIlroy hoping to defend his title.

The Holywood golfer has been credited with breathing new life into the tournament, which hosts a Pro Am event today.

Groupings and tee times for tomorrow and Friday were announced by the European Tour yesterday with McIlroy set to play alongside world number two Hideki Matsuyama from Japan and Spain's Jon Rahm.

He tees off at 1.20pm, while other Irish golfers have much earlier starts with Shane Lowry, McDowell and Harrington all due out before 8.30am.

McIlroy (28), who won the tournament in commanding fashion at the K Club last year, said he hopes history will repeat itself.

"There's so many great players here this week and I'm just excited to be a part of that and it might be the only opportunity for people from this area to see these guys play together at one time," he said.

"I would definitely encourage people to get out here, buy tickets and come out and witness what will be hopefully the best Irish Open ever."

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