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Stage finally set for the much-anticipated return of The Open to Royal Portrush

 Tiger Woods at Royal Portrush yesterday during his practice round. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin 

THE stage is finally set for the much-anticipated return of The Open to Royal Portrush.

The most historic and coveted individual prize in men's golf and the biggest sporting event ever to be staged in Ireland, will this week be played out on the stunning Co Antrim course.

Royal Portrush Golf Club will welcome the world's best golfers to Northern Ireland to do battle for the Claret Jug. And with them, golf fans - an estimated 215,000 - from across the globe will flock to the seaside town.

Yesterday marked the first official day of The Open week - the first of four training days, regarded as a unique opportunity for spectators to get close to the action and the players themselves.

 Tiger Woods has a practice round at Royal Portrush. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

From Thursday, 156 players will compete to contest The 148th Open, heralding a historic return of golf's oldest major to the north.

After two rounds, 36 holes, the field will be cut to 70 and those golfers will compete for the trophy on Saturday and Sunday.

For the first time in Open history, it is an all-ticket event.

Justin Rose and Darren Clarke pictured at Royal Portrush. Picture by Justin Rose/ Twitter

With ticket sales for the four tournament days completely sold out several months ago, there was only availability for practice days of Tuesday and Wednesday.

But just last week the R&A, golf's ruling authority, said even practice days were now an all-ticket affair, with no option of paying at the gate.

For those lucky enough to secure a pass through the gates, there will be plenty of golfing action on the north Antrim course, which boasts idyllic views towards the Giants Causeway, Dunluce Castle and as far as the Western Isles of Scotland.

 Kevin Kisner and Ricky Fowler check out the course at Royal Portrush. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Among the world class players set to compete are Holywood-born golfer Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka, whose caddie Ricky Elliott is a Portrush native.

Thousands of seats are located around the course including at the 18th green and at the practice ground for spectators to enjoy the action.

Portrush this week plays host to The Open this week. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Away from the sporting spectacle, Royal Portrush will also be offering a wealth of hospitality, including a massive spectator village, dedicated children's play area, water stations and giant TV screens.

In the run-up to The Open in recent days, the 2011 Open Champion Darren Clarke has been guiding some of this year's competitors around the Dunluce course at Portrush, rated as one of the most challenging and spectacular links courses in the world.

 Tiger Woods has a practice round at Royal Portrush. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Among those to garner advice from the Dungannon-born golfer has been Adam Scott and Justin Rose, who has been posting updates of his visits to the course on Twitter, as well as his stop off for a pint of Guinness with Clarke at Portrush's Harbour Bar.

The Open week is underway at Royal Portrush. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

American golfer Rickie Fowler is also already in town and was spotted in the same pub on Saturday.

For local golfer Graeme McDowell, the return of The Open for the first time since 1951, is a dream come true.

Justin Rose and Darren Clarke pictured in Portrush. Picture by Justin Rose/ Twitter

The Portrush-native, who just recently qualified to play at The Open, said it had been "amazing to see the Open Championship evolve in the sleepy little town where I was born".

"For anyone who has never been there, Portrush is on the very northern tip of the island of Ireland and is a very raw, beautiful, rugged landscape which feels very remote," he wrote on the European Tour blog.

"To see an Open being staged there is mind-blowing for many of the local people.

"For the likes of myself, Rory (McIlroy) and Darren (Clarke), it's special to see it coming back to Northern Ireland.

"I never really thought that I would see it in my career.

"I was born and bred in Portrush, but Rory and Darren are also synonymous with Portrush for good reasons.

"Rory has competed there for many years and shot 61 in his early teens and Darren moved there in his 20s when he married Heather, who was a local girl.

"I always remember when my school bus went past Darren’s house and I used to look out the window to see what Ferrari or Porsche was in the driveway and thinking to myself, 'One day that could be me'."

Royal Portrush will host the prestigious competition. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

The Open is underway in Portrush

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