Northern Ireland news

Roars of Portrush crowds herald start of a historic milestone for golf in Ireland

Arriving for The Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

AFTER a wait of almost 70 years, the roars of the Portrush crowds heralded the start of a historic milestone for golf in Ireland.

The spectacular north-east coastline was beamed across the world from early yesterday when the 148th staging of golf's oldest major began at Royal Portrush.

And amid the beauty and links splendour of the links course, it was Darren Clarke who was given the honour of hitting the opening tee shot.

He got the first round of the tournament underway at 6.35am, a moment thousands wanted to ensure they were there for.

Crowds of spectators had queued to get into the venue from 5am, despite the gates not opening until an hour later.

As the sun breaks through, crowds make their way across the foot bridges for The Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin 

When the entrance was finally unlocked, it was everyone for themselves as the crowds surged towards the first tee grandstand to capture a seat for the occasion.

The stand, which holds 750 people, was filled within around 20 minutes with thousands more gathered behind the ropes, vying for the best position.

Clarke was given a rousing start with spectators chanting his name from the first tee onwards, with the Dungannon golfer later admitting it had been an "emotional" day.

A little tiger on the course at The Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin 

From then on, the crowd welcomed some of the world's best golfers - 156 in total - all competing for the famous Claret Jug and a cheque for £1.56m.

It was shortly after 9am, when it was more than three deep around the first tee, that spectators awaited the arrival of Portrush born Graeme McDowell.

Dressed in a black top, he strode down the fairways after taking his first shot with his head looking from one side to the other, as if taking in the enormity of playing such a massive tournament on home soil.

"Portrush is behind you Graeme" shouted one spectator, while another screamed, "we love you McDowell" to much laughter from the crowds nearby.

Another local favourite Rory McIlroy began his Open bid to grab his second Claret Jug shortly after 10am. An air of anticipation has followed him for months, perhaps longer, as fans long for him to win on home soil.

But the story began badly after the Holywood golfer suffered a nightmare start.

Cheers and applause were replaced by sighs and shaking of the heads from many spectators when McIlroy appeared himself unsure of where his first ball had landed.

Rory McIlroy searches for the ball. Picture by Desmond Loughery, Pacemaker Press

A quadruple bogey on the opening hole set the tone for much of the rest of his first round, with the golfer seen searching in the rough on occasions.

To add to his woes, his disastrous start didn't get any better when one shot even struck a spectator's mobile phone as it careered into the crowd.

But for two American golf fans, they were still hanging onto the McIlroy dream, telling how they were "rooting for Rory to get story book ending".

Scott Teising and Robert Knight at The Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin 

There was no missing Robert Knight and Scott Teising, who were dressed in colourful, vintage golf attire at the course.

They told how the “luck of the Irish” had seen them secure tickets, just yesterday, for the first round.

"We didn’t have tickets before we arrived,” said Robert, who hails from Vancouver, near Washington.

"But we got sorted when we arrived yesterday, now we just need to find tickets for the weekend, we're hoping these outfits will help us."

Scott from Dallas also praised the warm Portrush welcome.

"The people are so friendly," he said.

Fellow Americans Tom Brown and Reed Finney, were without doubt showing their patriotic colours on their sleeves, in fact, their entire outfits.

Reed Finney and Tom Brown at The Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Dressed head-to-toe in suits made from the US flag, the two Atlanta men said there was no doubt they would return to the north again after The Open.

"We love it here," said Reed.

"It has been fantastic from start to finish and this is only the first day of competition.

"The Guinness has been going down well too."

Tom quickly added that "we will be back here for sure, we have been very taken with Portrush."

And while many spectators have experienced The Open fever on numerous occasions before, for two young fans it was their first taste of golf's biggest major.

Stacey Camp and her mother-in-law Kim Camp with twins Ellie and Jack from New York at The Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin 

Stacey Camp from New York and her mother-in-law Kim had two backseat passengers as they made their way round the course.

Happily strapped into baby carriers were twins Ellie and Jack, aged just 11 months.

“It’s their first Open,” said Stacey.

"There’s not much chance they’ll remember it though, but it's lovely to have them with us.

"They’ve been fed, so hopefully we will around the course a bit with them while they’re quiet."

And while there was no shortage of top class golfers to watch in action, for a large majority of the crowd gathered, it was the roar of the Tiger there were there for.

Tiger Woods beginning his round during The Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Even with a few hours to spare before he was due out on the course, spectator after spectator filed into the grand stand to secure their seats to see Woods.

As he took to the tee, there were shouts of 'let's go Tiger" and the crowds swelled to some of the biggest of the day. Fans jostled for a good position behind the ropes, with others racing to higher places to ensure they could catch a glimpse of the American golfer.

It wasn't long though before the heavens opened and some of the heaviest rain of the day fell just as Woods made his way to the second tee.

But it didn't appear to faze the golfer, who smiled and laughed as he continued his quest for a first Claret Jug in 14 years.

For one fan, it was a "moment of sporting history" to see Woods in the flesh.

But with three more days of golfing action to come, without doubt there will be many more such moments at The Open still to come.

Thousands of people packed into Royal Portrush yesterday for the start of The Open. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Arriving for The Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin 

Thousands of people packed into Royal Portrush yesterday for the start of The Open. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Heavy rain batters the spectators during The Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin 

The media centre for The Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Crowds watching Rory McIlroy on the putting green before his round at The Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin 

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