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Stars and record breaking crowds come out for Irish Open at Royal Portrush

THE organisers were shaking their heads in disbelief -- more than 15,000 people turned up at the Irish Open in Royal Portrush yesterday for the traditional Pro-Am as stars of sport and screen lined up alongside the greats of golf.

'Groundhog Day' star Bill Murray stole the show (if not the tournament) as he regaled the crowds when he teed off with Graeme McDowell in an all brothers team.

Gary McDowell was matching his brother in the golf, but Bill's brother Joel was the one catching the crowd's attention, sporting loud green trousers adorned with dozens of little shamrocks.

"You should give John Daly back his trousers," shouted one wag from the gallery.

Brother Bill retorted: "He's just had some lessons, folks. Please forgive him."

When it was his turn to hit his tee shot, Graeme McDowell assured him: "You could land a jumbo jet on that fairway."

It didn't put the actor off, who got his revenge on the 15th green. As McDowell steadied himself for a six-foot putt, Mr Murray said: "You know if you putt this, the crowd is going to go wild." McDowell duly missed.

The actor chatted to the crowds throughout his round, at one stage donning the mayoral chain of Coleraine's first citizen Sam Cole.

A host of celebrities took to the course on the north Antrim coast alongside Europe's top golfers.

Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill enthused: "It's just fantastic to be here. It's so special and the whole tournament is going to be special."

Legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings, joining actor Aidan Quinn and former Open Championship winner John Daly in his team, said he was looking forward to watching the real action today.

"There's no better place for it," he said. "I would be feeling a lot better myself if it wasn't for those couple of Bushmills last night."

Starved of top-flight sports for a generation, the North responded yesterday by setting a new crowd record for a Pro-Am with 15,000 people flocking to the course. That's almost four times the European Tour record.

The next four days have been sold out, too, with 27,000 people vying to see the Irish Open each day, the first time a European Tour event has sold out.

Yesterday morning the midges danced amid the mizzle as talk turned to the Irish weather. By the afternoon, the sun was beating down, though at one stage it was raining and sunny at the same time.

It was a particularly special day for Ronan Kelly, aged eight from Burren, Co Down.

He was at Westlife's last ever gig at Croke Park at the weekend.

The keen golfer got to meet Shane Filan at the first tee yesterday, just moments after Darren Clarke gave him his golfing glove.

"It's fantastic to be here, I'd love to play like these boys some day," said Ronan, who has the added advantage that his grandad owns a driving range.

Mum Kitty said: "The whole thing has been fantastic. We're all in a B&B in Portstewart and we are here until Saturday. It was brilliant to meet Shane and Darren Clarke was just lovely. Ronan is thrilled to bits."

Things got even better later when world No 2 Rory McIlroy spotted Ronan's Co Down GAA jersey and came over to pose for another picture.

"Everyone has been waiting a long time for the Irish Open to come back up north, and to have it played here at one of the best golf courses in the world is fantastic," said Mr McIlroy.

Irish Independent