Tiger loves Portrush and Portrush loves Tiger
TIGER Woods heaped praise on Portrush yesterday as the American golfer said he would try to stay off the Guinness until The Open was over.
As more than 40,000 descended on the prestigious Royal Portrush Golf Course for the third practice day, it was the reigning Masters champion who continued to attract the crowds.
Since his arrival in the Co Antrim town over the weekend, the crowds have swelled every time Woods has taken to the course.
And yesterday was no different when it was standing room only when he faced the media to describe his thoughts of visiting Northern Ireland for the first time.
And the love that local spectators have shown for Woods, regarded as one of the greatest golfers of all time, was reciprocated by the sports star.
"The people have been absolutely fantastic," he said.
"They're so respectful."
Woods also described how it was "new to me" to travel to the Northern Ireland, following several visits to the Republic over the years.
"We used to come over here all the time and fish with the late Payne Stewart and O'Meara and I," he said.
"We used to go fishing all around Ireland and play golf and enjoy coming over here and playing.
"I've never been this far north.
"Royal County Down is the furthest north I've ever been. This is new to me."
While he may never have played Royal Portrush before, he appeared impressed by the links course.
"It's an unbelievable golf course," he said.
"It's amazing that (The Open) hasn't been here in such a long period of time. This is just a wonderful golf course."
And for anyone who missed out on tickets for The Open for a chance to see Woods in action, all may not be lost.
The golfer could be sampling the hospitality or attractions of sunny Portrush after confirming "I'll take a look around" during his rest day today ahead of the start of competition tomorrow.
But with a wry smile, he promised to stay off the Guinness during The Open, perhaps after sampling a few too many before.
Asked if he had drunk a pint of Guinness this week, he replied: "This week? No, not this week. In the past? Um...."
It wasn't just the reigning Masters champion who has fallen in love with Portrush either.
Gary Woodland, who just last month won the US Open at Pebble Beach, has been sampling the delights of the stunning north coast.
"Portrush is amazing," he said.
"The town, went to dinner the other night, it's very busy, but the weather has obviously been spectacular.
"The golf course, the views, everything has been very, very nice.
"I was Graeme McDowell's neighbour for eight years in Orlando. I heard a lot about it.
"I hadn't been over here yet and I'm glad I did, because it's a beautiful place."
Another golfer who was attracting a frenzied following yesterday was Brooks Koepka. But for one spectator, it wasn't the world number one he was following, it was the American golfer's caddie.
"I know his caddie Ricky Elliott," said the spectator.
"Hopefully he will be able to bring a bit of home advantage to Koepka, as he grew up here and was a member of Rathmore."
But as expected, the support for local golfers was in abundance yesterday, in particular Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell who was back on home turf in Portrush.
With the Open returning to Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years, the pressure is on the local golfing contingent.
The first tee grandstand was almost packed to capacity as McDowell began his practice round yesterday alongside Jon Rahm. Shouts of 'go on Graeme' and 'you can do it McDowell' could be heard as the former Major winner took to the fairways.
A few hours later and Holywood golfer McIlroy made his first appearance at this year's Open to the delight of the crowds.
The four-time major champion, who has not lifted one of golf's big four trophies since winning the 2014 US PGA Championship, looked in good spirits as he was accompanied on his practice round by Spanish golfer Rafa Cabrera Bello.
McIlroy was on the course last week to refamiliarise himself with the layout, where he held a course record 61 before the recent redesign.
But with the air of anticipation circling above him, it will be the 148th Open at Royal Portrush where he hopes he can end his five-year major drought and lift the coveted Claret Jug.