Darren Clarke insists he had no hesitation in accepting an invite to hit the opening tee shot as he reflected on the “incredible journey” which has brought the Open Championship back to Northern Ireland after an absence of 68 years.
Clarke, who owns a house overlooking Royal Portrush, is scheduled to get play under way at 6.35am on Thursday alongside Amateur Championship winner James Sugrue from Cork and American Charley Hoffman.
The 50-year-old lifted the Claret Jug at Royal St George’s in 2011 but has missed the cut in three of the last four years and would be well aware of the connotations attached to being an “honorary starter”.
Colin Montgomerie performed the role in 2016 at Royal Troon, where his father was club secretary for more than 20 years, while Mark O’Meara did so in 2017 at Royal Birkdale, scene of his 1998 victory, promptly drove out of bounds and struggled to an opening 81.
Clarke was approached three weeks ago by R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers and said: “Mr Slumbers asked me if I would do them the honour of hitting the opening tee shot. It’s Royal Portrush and when the R&A ask you, it’s a definite yes. I said I’d love it.
“It’s the first time we’ve been here since 1951 and he asked me to do it and I happily accepted. Sometimes it can be a good draw teeing off here at half six in the morning too. We’ll see.
“Will there be tears? No. I’ll just be very proud that we have it back here in Northern Ireland. It’s a huge thing. It’s going to be an amazing tournament. The atmosphere is going to be sensational.”
Former world number one Rory McIlroy, who was born 60 miles away on the outskirts of Belfast, was among those who never dreamt of being able to play a major championship on home soil.
And it was indeed unthinkable for decades due to the Troubles, of which Clarke had life-threatening first-hand experience in 1986.
“It was a job that I had setting up a bar and there was a bomb behind it,” Clarke recalled. “We got a bomb scare at 8.30, everybody out, bomb went off at 9:00 and the place was flattened.
“That was life in Northern Ireland. Bombs were going off quite frequently. And a lot of people, unfortunately, paid a heavy penalty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that was our life back there at that stage.
“You think about at that stage whether we were ever going to have a tournament such as this. It was beyond the realms of possibility. It was just never going to happen.
“So to get to this point has been an incredible journey for what we’ve all come through.”
Clarke’s experience of Royal Portrush means he has been in demand for practice rounds in recent weeks, with the likes of Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Matt Wallace all taking advantage of his local knowledge.
“I probably told them too much really,” Clarke joked. “Of course I want to beat them. But at the same time, they’re all good guys, I like them all. I’ve been giving them whatever information that they wanted and a little bit more.
“The golf course has a few things that you really need to know about it, which holes to attack and which ones not to. The fairways are generous here but because there’s so many different angles, picking your line off the tee and whatever club you’re going to hit off that tee is vitally important.”
Clarke’s own form means a fairytale win is highly unlikely – although he has recorded three top 10s on the Champions Tour this season – but the likes of McIlroy and Graeme McDowell will carry the feverish home hopes.
“I’ve always been good and bad, pretty hard on myself in the past,” Clarke added. “But I’m determined this week to enjoy it the best I can.
“Whether I play well or don’t play well, it’s a huge thing for all the Irish golfers, for Northern Ireland, for me that lives here a little bit, to have the Open Championship. So I’ll try and enjoy it as much as I possibly can.”