History seems to hang from every lamppost along the Causeway Coast. Drive through the villages and town lands dotted around Portrush this week and there’s scarcely a pole devoid of a Union Jack or an Ulster Banner.
But the focus around the Dunluce links has been on writing new stories instead of rehashing old ones.
And Darren Clarke was eager to play his part.
A resident of Portrush, his house sits on the Dunluce Road, overlooking the cliff area known as the Whiterocks and the stretch of course from the 4th green and along the length of the 5th fairway. It’s less than a mile removed from the clubhouse and yet he was up and about at 3.15am and ready for the dawn to break. He even restricted himself to two glasses of wine the night before.
A moody presence at times, Clarke made a conscious effort to give more of himself yesterday. He cajoled James Sugrue around the 18, chewed the fat with Charley Hoffman and made a genuine attempt to demonstrate his appreciation to the supporters who made it their business to make the early start.
“I probably smiled a little bit more today than I normally do,” he said.
The man from Dungannon has experienced emotions few could imagine on a golf course. He was the recipient of one of the most extraordinary ovations in the game’s history when he teed off at the Ryder Cup in 2006, just six weeks after wife Heather passed away from cancer.
Five years later and he was wrapping his arms around the Claret Jug after holding off the not inconsiderable pursuits of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson at Royal St George’s.
These are moments few mortals experience once in their lifetimes but yesterday’s opening tee shot at the 148th Open amounted to a third of scarcely believable import.
“I’ve hit lots of Ryder Cup shots and all that kind of stuff, first tee and all that, but that was pretty much up there. I didn’t think I would feel the way I did but the support and everything about it... Just as I was about to hit my tee shot I thought, ‘wow, it’s the Open Championship and we’re back here at Portrush’. It was amazing.”
The Open circus will move on come Monday but this week’s performance will leave its mark.
Think of convoys of cars in the month of July and the vision of yellow reg plates decamping south to escape the parade season come to mind, so the influx of ‘Mexicans’ up through North Antrim is remarkable in itself.
Areas festooned with red, white and blue have opened their doors – at a price – to the southern hoardes. Some of the ‘Dublin media’, for example, are bivouacked just a few hundred yards down a road from an Orange Lodge. How long would the odds on that have been even 20 years ago?
Clarke, after his opening round of 71, captured the mood perfectly.
“Rory (McIlroy) summed it up perfectly: that the Open wasn’t about him. It’s about how far our country has come, how far forward it has moved, the economic benefits of what this tournament is going to bring, not just this week but the legacy going forward, what it is going to bring to our country. It is indescribable.
You go back and take a look at some of the pictures 20 years ago and we wouldn’t be standing here having this conversation. You would go down the street, maybe not here, but you would see police here and army here. You don’t see that anymore. We’re very proud of our little country.
This week’s Open was always likely to feel the love, not just from locals like Clarke but from those visitors attracted to this neck of the woods by the event’s magnetic pull.
The backdrop of Northern Ireland’s Troubles and the 68-year gap since this tournament last pitched tent in Portrush were guarantees of that.
Extending that sense of bonhomie through the week depended on the course.
The US Open has floundered on the waves of huge criticism for its course set-ups in recent times but, while the litany of heavy rain storms has tested players and spectators alike, the Dunluce Links has provided a canvas worthy of the occasion.
Pretty much every player who stopped to share their thoughts, regardless of the numbers on their card, were of the opinion that this was a tough but fair track devoid of unnecessary trickery. For Hoffman, it made for the perfect marriage of occasion and operation.
“Three days, three different winds,” he said of his week here thus far.
“It’s a hard golf course. Doesn’t matter which way the wind blows. Those last three holes coming in are, I think, the hardest stretch of three holes you could imagine with the breeze into you. It’s a great test of golf.”