Dermot Gilleece: 'Locals and visitors have enthusiastically bought into Paul McGinley's festival atmosphere'
Imagine a town dressed in its absolute Sunday best to mark a special occasion. That's Lahinch, celebrating the week the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open has come to West Clare for the first time.
As far as the eye can see, residential properties and business premises are freshly painted, courtesy of a scheme initiated by the council. Locals joked: "You daren't stand still for fear of being macadamed." And there are flower displays at every turn.
With hordes of visitors thronging the streets, it’s a lot different from visits I remember from years covering the South of Ireland Championship. The mood created by glorious weather, certainly contrasted starkly with memories of poker sessions in the back room of Kenny’s Pub on wet, hostile afternoons.
One local newspaper is predicting a commercial jackpot of €5 million this weekend when up to 100,000 visitors will have passed through the town. "That might be overstating things a bit, but I would still expect about three times the normal take for the first week in July," said businessman, Alan Logue.
He can take the credit for floral displays in the form of charming baskets on up to 70 premises. "We put a proper, irrigation system in place, whereby the baskets are watered at 5.0 every morning," said Logue.
This was done through a once-off payment of €180 for each premises, which is accompanied by an annual contribution of €90.
It’s all part of the festival atmosphere promised by championship host, Paul McGinley. Locals and visitors appeared to have enthusiastically bought into the notion, when I rambled the streets on Thursday night.
"I’ll tell you what this bar is about, it’s about everybody being treated equal," proclaimed Conor Flanagan, security man at the famous 19th, once owned by the Lions and Ireland prop, Gordon Wood. "They may not be equal when they’re leaving, but they’re equal coming in."
With that, a familiar face appeared. "Conor," said I, "say hello to a decent Yorkshireman." With that, Padraig Harrington's manager, Adrian Mitchell, graciously extended his hand as if to a long lost friend.
In the Claremont Bar and Night Club, a singer with guitar was beating out the old Cat Stevens number, “Father and Son.” And Kenny's, now with its roofless beer garden at the back, looked very different from how I remembered it.
Edinburgh Jimmy, McGinley's caddie, was among the patrons. I suggested that with a name like his, he should be across the road in the Aberdeen Bar. His reply was unrepeatable.
Further down the street, I stopped to admire a motor-cycle with gleaming chrome. "It’s a Harley Davidson 1600 Softail Custom," said the proud owner, Gerry O’Connor from Milltown Malbay. Then, on looking me up and down, he offered: "Would you like to come for a spin?" Somewhat taken aback, I gently declined.
Golfing people were everywhere, many of them wearing Lahinch GC apparel. Among them was Raymond Burns, the resident professional at Lisheen Springs GC in Brittas, and a former semi-finalist in the South of Ireland. "I brought my assistant, Conor Coyne from Youghal along, to show him what the Irish Open is all about on a great course," said the one-time tour player.
"Isn't Harrington phenomenal," Burns went on. "He hit a shot today [Thursday] to the second hole which people said was lucky but for me it was just class. From the left-hand rough, he hits it to 15 feet and holes the putt."
He concluded: "This place has everything anybody would want. There’s even a road beside the 18th hole. Just like St Andrews." Golfing praise doesn't come any higher.