Southern comfort out of glare of northern lights
IT promises to be the greatest Irish Open in history, with a capacity 27,000 spectators thronging Royal Portrush on each of the four tournament days. A tsunami of excitement, on a par with that which greeted the Ryder Cup to these shores in 2006, is sweeping through Irish golf and Ulster in particular is set to rise up in salute to its recent Major champions.
Yet the weight of expectation bearing down on Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Northern Ireland's other favourites will be so great, maybe Irish Open week sets up nicely for a winner from south of the border.
It's difficult for any golfer to prevail in his national championship -- Padraig Harrington was the first 'home' golfer in 25 years to win the Irish Open when he lifted the trophy at Adare Manor in 2007. This week's event, the first Irish Open on Northern soil since 1953, represents a 'home-away-from-home' tie for golfers from the Republic as they are spared the scrutiny and pressure which, inevitably, will focus on their Ulster colleagues.
Given his impressive finishes at the Masters and US Open, Harrington would be an obvious choice for Irish golf's 'Fifth Major' in Portrush, were this not his seventh tournament in eight weeks.
Fatigue clearly contributed to his tepid finish at the Travelers in Connecticut last Sunday. A final-round 69 left the Dubliner tied 11th on 10-under, four behind Australia's Marc Leishman, who clinched his first PGA Tour win with a brilliant 62.
Yet the adrenalin stirred by massive crowds at Portrush could carry Harrington to his first European Tour victory in nearly four years, if he hits the ground running on Thursday.
Dubliners Peter Lawrie and Paul McGinley have also recently shown flashes of form good enough to suggest they have a chance on a links which the latter rates as "one of my favourite courses in the world".
Okay, despite his recent form slump, world No 2 McIlroy is a worthy bookmakers' favourite, with the stunning course-record 61 he set on the Dunluce links at age 16 adding further spice to his appearance here.
McIlroy missed his fourth cut in five events at the recent US Open but has continued working at home in recent days with Michael Bannon as he tries to recover his sparkle.
Yet Portrush native McDowell's second place at Olympic suggests he could give friends and neighbours a rare thrill this weekend.
Clarke (43) has reportedly recovered well from a recent groin strain and he played 36 holes at Ballyliffin last Wednesday. The British Open champion certainly needs a big performance to revive his career after a nightmarish 10 months since Sandwich.
No fewer than 27 Irish golfers, 10 from the North, tee it up in the first round. Chris Devlin (36), a Ballymena native who plays the satellite tours in the US, received the eighth and final sponsor's invite yesterday afternoon.
Yet don't be surprised if the trophy heads south next Sunday.