Portrush only sees this many shots dropped in quick succession at five minutes to closing time in the Harbour Bar
“WELCOME to the 148th Open Championship. On the tee from Northern Ireland, Darren Clarke.”
With those words from starter David Lancaster on the first tee at 6.35am at Royal Portrush yesterday, the wait for the return of Major golf was over.
Clarke had been granted the honour of striking the first shot in his adopted hometown, 68 years on from Max Faulkner’s winning putt in the only other Open to be held on this island.
And as a man with a sense of occasion, he didn’t let anyone down, with a solid drive down the right of the fairway followed by a short iron to the green and a 15-foot putt rolled into the middle of the hole for a birdie three.
For a while at least, the 2011 champion led the Open. Moments earlier, the Dungannon man had been roared onto the tee by a packed grandstand and the thousands of fans that already lined the opening hole.
At that stage the poor weather that was feared had not arrived. As is fitting in this part of the world in July, it was cold but it was beautiful. And the various colours shining brightly on the Dunluce course were certainly fine.
Clarke reached three-under early on to show that the course could be kind to those who know it, one of whom, Graeme McDowell, also received a rapturous reception as he made his way to the first tee.
He was cheered all the way up the opening hole but it wasn’t just the home hopes who had support.
A dozen or more people wore Canadian ice hockey shirts in support of compatriot Corey Conners, while a group of men were adorned in #teamxander shirts to show their backing for McDowell’s playing partner Xander Schauffele.
McDowell made a steady start with a par at the first and a birdie at the par-five second, despite the fact emotions were running a lot higher than he expected, as he admitted after his round.
“I did have a tear in the eye, and I’m kind of embarrassed to say it. I guess I do know why I had one, but I’m just going out there to play golf,” he said.
“It’s just been a great journey. It’s been an amazing journey to get here.”
Up ahead, Clarke was going well as his beloved wind and rain came through in patches, and while he slipped back to level-par late on, he was also keen to reflect on a memorable day, starting with his ovation at an ungodly hour of the morning.
“I didn’t think I’d feel the way I did,” admitted the 50-year-old.
“But the support, everything from the crowds, just everything about it when I was about to hit my tee shot, wow, it’s the Open Championship, we’re back in Portrush. It was amazing.”
Clarke was well through his round by the time Rory McIlroy stepped up to the plate, but while the ‘local heroes’ who had gone before him performed admirably despite the nerves jangling, the same can’t be said for the Holywood man, who was the bookies’ favourite before the off.
A pulled drive went out of bounds before his second tee shot found heavy rough. A couple of hacks and a penalty drop later and a quadruple bogey eight, the dreaded snowman was going on his card. Walking in the air he was not.
A poor chip led to another bogey at the third and McIlroy was probably tempted to make a quick dash to the ‘Open Arms’ for a pint to settle himself. He might have had to queue for a while though – it was just past 11am after all.
Portrush usually only sees this many shots dropped in quick succession at five minutes to closing time in the Harbour Bar.
Another errant drive down right of the stunning fifth hole led to a protracted chat about a ruling, with a leaderboard in McIlroy’s way.
It seemed likely it was as close as he'd get to a leaderboard this week and after just five holes his Open hopes, just like Dunluce Castle in the distance, were apparently in ruins.
A snap decision was made to catch up with McDowell at this point, and he crept serenely up the standings, a birdie at 14 being met with huge approval as he moved to within a shot of Shane Lowry’s lead with four to play.
Unfortunately, that was to be as good as it got for Gmac, who three-putted for bogeys on 15 and 17 before disaster struck on the final hole.
McDowell pushed his drive right, and the ball couldn’t be found – at least not within the permitted three minutes. A return to the tee followed and a seven went on his card to complete a two-over round of 73.
“We had 30 people over there looking for that thing,” said McDowell. “And 12 seconds after the three minutes were up we found it, we found my ball.
“But you shouldn’t be over there in the first place. Gutted, obviously but it is what it is.”
When it was pointed out that McIlroy had run up a big number on his first hole, McDowell was sympathetic.
“I can imagine how he felt. It’s obviously a horrible way to start. But in many ways would you rather start with an eight or finish with a seven? You’ve got 17 holes to battle your eight back.”
As it transpired, Rory was in a position to answer that hypothetical question, as his ship that had been steadied soon hit stormy waters once more.
A double-bogey at the short 16th, aptly named ‘Calamity Corner’ was followed by a triple of his own on the last, all of which added up to an eight-over 79 and a mountain to climb just to make the cut, never mind make up a 13-shot deficit to the leaders.
Could he see a way back?
“Definitely a way back to Florida,” came a reply laced with gallows humour.
Despite the long-game struggles throughout his round, McIlroy was most concerned about a lapse in concentration that led to a missed tiddler on the 16th green.
“It’s not like my head is going to Kelly’s tonight or something, but I’m berating myself about the putt I just hit and went to tap it in and didn’t.”
With so many big names on the course in the first half of the day, cheered on by hugely enthusiastic crowds, it barely seemed plausible that the atmosphere could be ramped up a level after lunch, but that is to ignore the ‘Tiger Factor’.
As the 15-time Major winner prepared to start his challenge, the crowds were 10-deep in places.
From the start, however, his ‘Radar’ was off and a pulled drive on the first only just missed an oblivious Wayne Riley, with the Sky Sports commentator almost losing his trademark wide-rimmed hat.
Woods managed to scramble a par from a greenside bunker there, but the wheels quickly came off and by the time he hooked his way up the par-five seventh like a high-handicapper playing with an umbrella and an orange, it was clear that the intermittent storms were not going to bring the best out of him.
Tiger battled on to a seven-over 78 and it’s looking like he might want to join McIlroy on that flight to Florida this evening.
“I didn't do much out there today,” he said
“I hit a lot of missed shots, they were all left. Wasn't hitting it solid. Everything was off the heel. Just trying to scrape it around. Best I could do was seven-over.”
A few groups ahead of him, the ‘new Tiger’, Brooks Koepka, and his Portrush caddie Ricky Elliott signed for a 68 without breaking sweat, while just behind Jon Rahm continued his love affair with Irish links courses by surging to the upper reaches of the leaderboard.
It certainly is a long way back for McDowell, McIlroy and Woods, but a lot can change on Royal Portrush’s Dunluce course.
Thankfully we won’t have to wait 68 years for the next chapter.