Sport Golf

Monday 26 February 2018

Major achievement creates wave of goodwill

Dermot Gilleece

Under angry skies at around 4.15 last Tuesday afternoon, it seemed as if the entire attendance of 4,280 was gathered around the first tee at Royal Portrush.

"Our players aren't the only legends we have to offer . . ." proclaimed the giant tourism display to the left. At that moment, however, Graeme McDowell was the lone focus of attention.

Close by, his father Kenny was almost anonymous in a setting light years removed from the climactic scene at Pebble Beach two years ago, when McDowell brought unbridled joy to his native place by capturing the US Open title. While walking down the first fairway, the player called across to his dad: "If mum's preparing dinner, tell her I've just started here."

Three months before the Open Championship came to Portrush in 1951, Kenny McDowell was born in a "wee place" called Islandmore, two miles down the road. As a lad, his head was filled with golfing tales about the great event in which local icon Fred Daly finished fourth behind the surprise winner Max Faulkner.

Now, first hand, he was about to witness a remarkable happening in which his son had played a very significant role. "Never mind about the weather which we can do nothin' about," he said. "I hope the Irish Open is a big success, giving us something the town and this great course can be proud of."

While the tournament was still taking competitive shape, that objective had already been richly realised. It was achieved through the extraordinary enthusiasm of spectators who clearly adopted Kenny McDowell's philosophical attitude towards often cruel conditions. Having come to honour their golfing heroes in an event they had waited years to stage, they weren't about to let wind and rain deflect them from relishing every moment.

And their enthusiasm spilled over the fairway ropes. "I've been very pleasantly surprised at the warmth of the crowd, given that I'm in Graeme's back yard," said Pádraig Harrington. "By turning out in such numbers, they have ensured that the Irish Open will be classified in future by the players and public as very definitely an 'A' event."

All of which came at a considerable cost to the host club. "We've been closed totally for three weeks," said secretary/manager Wilma Erskine. "And we didn't take any new visitor bookings since last January. Then there are lost sales in the pro shop and a drop in the bar and catering, all of which would come to around £200,000.

"But I believe it's money well spent. In fact, it's fantastic value when you consider the television exposure, especially in America, which is why we wanted the tournament in the first place. In the meantime, the guaranteed success of the event through advance ticket sales has already brought increased business for the next six months, which are fully booked.

"And we should continue to benefit from the Irish Open factor over the next few years when we would expect our world ranking to go up as a much sought-after venue."

Against the background of Irish Open costs, one imagined possible concern at the sort of outlay involved in bringing the Open Championship back to Portrush. "In that event, the Royal and Ancient would carry the financial can for everything," she replied.

"My understanding is that they would pay for any changes to the course while also compensating us for any loss of green-fee revenue. Either way, it would be an incalculable boost. I have friends at Royal Troon (Open venue for 2016) and from a commercial standpoint, they acknowledge how important it is to maintain their position on the Open rota."

Back on the course, where umbrellas swung wildly in rising winds, spectators remained firmly committed to the cause. Especially admirable was their good humour during the break on Thursday afternoon because of the threat of lightning.

And when it seemed that things were brightening on Friday, the rain returned again. That was when I met Dick Mitchell, a 30-year member of Portadown GC, down on his hunkers sheltering under an umbrella. Was it worth all the hardship? "Sure it is," he replied. "We're here for three days, without fear. Supporting it. Now that we have three top players, we have to honour them. And nobody forgets Harrington. We're very fond of Harrington up here, too. Very fond."

Then there was the southern contingent. Based in a Derry hotel for the weekend, Corrstown member John Troy and his wife Jean were with their six-year-old daughter Jennifer, whom they conceded was absolutely miserable. Dad patiently explained to her, however, that in life, certain discomfort had to be endured, especially if you happened to be a Harrington fan.

Wearing a thoroughly sodden Ryder Cup sweater from 2006 at The K Club, Troy said with a ready smile: "Sure, it's typical Irish weather but we had to come up to see Pádraig. The way he's been playing the last few weeks, I fancy him to win this weekend, or be very close. So you have to make the effort, haven't you?"

McDowell, Harrington and Simon Dyson teed off at 12.50pm on Friday during a welcome break in the weather. "Did you ever see an Irish Open scene like this?" asked veteran golf photographer David Cannon as we looked down the right side of the first fairway where spectators stood five and six deep, all the way to the green more than 400 yards in the distance. Not in recent memory was all I could think of, by way of reply.

As we suspected on Tuesday, the country's Major champions lit a flame that even the worst of the weather couldn't dampen.

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