It was business as usual down on Portrush’s beautiful East Strand as the lifeguard looked out from her perch to the handful of dog walkers and paddlers on the beach.
A mile out to sea, the outcrops of rock known as the Skerries stood stoically as the gentlest of waves lapped their surfaces and all about them was a picture of late-afternoon, sun-kissed calm.
Had that lifeguard neglected her duties for a moment and looked over her shoulder, however, the view would have been in every sense the 180-degree volte-face.
For this is the week of the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush Golf Club and there, up over the dunes, as sand gave way to grass, there was relative pandemonium.
Over the left shoulder the articulated trucks and miles of cables of the TV compound gave the sense of visiting heavy industry as television companies from around the world readied themselves for their wall-to-wall broadcast coverage while, over on the right, thousands of spectators clambered for vantage points, crossed temporary walkways, and consumed huge quantities of ice cream, coffee, hamburgers, and pints.
For regular attendees of major-championship golf, these sights are nothing out of the ordinary. For the people of Portrush, however, this week represents a serious change of pace. Not that they are in danger of failing to hold up their end of the bargain. They and Royal Portrush GC came through with flying colours when the European Tour dipped professional golf’s toes into the water and staged the Irish Open here in 2012, paving the way for the R&A to follow suit and bring their most prestigious tournament back to this world-renowned links golf course for the first time since England’s Max Faulkner lifted the Claret Jug here in 1951.
Yet this is on another scale, not just compared to 68 years ago but also a mere seven.
Staging the 2012 Irish Open was a shock to the collective system, bringing as it did more than 100,000 spectators over four rain-soaked days in June.
The 2019 Open arriving in town is seismic and so far the good people of Portrush are once again rising to the occasion, as two-time Open champion Pádraig Harrington noted this week.
“Bringing the Irish Open here in 2012 showed there was no excuse for not having an event here,” said Ireland’s triple major champion. “2012 was an incredible event, the crowds turned out, the community was behind it, and it proved that it was going to be a success.
It’s been proved now. I think it is going straight in as the fifth biggest ticket sale for an Open and it’s pre-sold. It’s an automatic success already.
Harrington, a renowned lover of the 99 ice cream, would approve of the efforts being made in the town to make the greatest golfers in the world feel welcome, particularly down at Morelli’s, the Italian ice cream parlour which on Monday scored its very own hole in one by unveiling a huge tribute to defending champion Francesco Molinari in the form of his picture on an Italian Tricolore covering one wall and made entirely of sprinkles.
“Please don’t try to eat him,” Morelli’s implored potential customers on its Twitter page before offering free ice cream if Molinari defends his title at Portrush.
Daniella Morelli, part of the fourth generation of the family that founded the company on the Northern Ireland’s north coast in 1911, said visitors have loved it.
“It was a joint effort by all the family, originally it was just going to be the Claret Jug then we thought we would like to mark the fact that Franceso Molinari is the current champion, and with him being Italian, of course he was the first Italian to win the Claret Jug so we wanted to celebrate him,” she said.
“This week has been busy with lots of foreign visitors — lots of Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Japanese, South Africans — and they are all so complimentary about Portrush and how well it looks and how fantastic the coastline is. The buzz is great, it’s electric, and it’s fantastic to be part of it.”
After all, this is a week when anything could happen and probably will. When Lahinch staged the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open two weeks ago, the west Clare town went bananas for the event, closed its streets to turn the golf tournament into a full-blown festival at the behest of host Paul McGinley and were rewarded with a main street packed to the rafters every night.
There was full buy-in from locals and this week is no different, albeit with bigger crowds, its economic impact spreading well beyond the town boundaries and along Antrim’s Causeway Coast, engulfing towns and villages like Portstewart and Bushmills in the process.
Where else, for instance, would you be treated to the unlikely sight of a local primary school, St Patrick’s on the Bushmills Rd, transformed into the Open’s Hugo Boss Fitting Room?
It’s certainly different and just another instance of this small town rolling up its sleeves, putting on its best front, and showcasing itself to the world. You cannot help but wish it the greatest success.