Shane Lowry's remarkable win in the heart of loyalist north Antrim unites an island
They waved tricolours and they sang the Fields of Athenry battle cry of the Republic’s football fans in the heart of loyalist north Antrim last night — but there were no complaints, no dissenting voices, as Co Offaly golfer Shane Lowry united Ireland in a joyous celebration of his stunning six-shot Open championship win at Royal Portrush.
And all on the Sabbath, too, when the heroics of the son of an All-Ireland Gaelic football winner were feted with liberal amounts of what the north coast's old MP the Rev Ian Paisley used to call the Devil's buttermilk.
Shane's sensational victory in torrential rain — the storm in the Port — was greeted with the sort of euphoria which was more usually witnessed in a TV darts final than a golf tournament, and was also an illustration of what north-south co-operation can achieve.
For Shane's caddy Brian ‘Bo' Martin is from Ardglass in Co Down. He's a talented golfer to boot, and, it appears, a calming influence on his similarly bearded boss.
But Shane wasn't the only victor after an historic week for sport across the entire island of Ireland — at Croke Park in Dublin on Saturday updates on the 32-year-old golfer's progress were relayed over the PA system to thousands of GAA football fans at a game between Tyrone and Cork.
As hangover-threatening revelries went on late into the night, Portrush — dubbed Partyrush — and its magical golf course were also lauded as winners too, with influential golfing commentators calling the 148th Open the greatest ever, and few people demurred.
But significantly, too, The Open was hailed as more than just a sporting landmark, with the prestigious event marking a major unifying milestone in Northern Ireland's lengthy transition from war to peace.
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And with tragic irony, the culmination of The Open yesterday came on the 47th anniversary of one of the blackest days in Northern Ireland's history… Bloody Friday when nine people were killed and hundreds more were injured in a 19-bomb IRA blitz on Belfast.
The success of The Open will inevitably heap renewed pressure on Stormont politicians — many of whom were at Royal Portrush — to redouble their efforts to restore the power-sharing Executive, which was instrumental in bringing The Open Championship to Northern Ireland in the first place.
But that was the last thing on Shane Lowry's mind yesterday evening as he lifted the famous Open trophy and, after hugging his wife Wendy, their two-year-old daughter Iris and his parents, he thanked Royal Portrush officials and the R&A for staging a flawless event.
"I love this place," he told thousands of people shoehorned into the horseshoe grandstand and gathered around the green.
"It's one of my favourite places in Ireland.
"To be able to come up here and play an Open Championship was just great."
Shane almost broke down in tears as he talked about his parents, who he said would be getting the Claret Jug and who he revealed had "sacrificed so much for me when I was younger".
The new champion golfer praised his caddy, Bo Martin, who "stayed on my back and kept talking in my ear" when Shane said all he could think about was the moment he would be holding the Claret Jug.
He also applauded the fans at Royal Portrush, who "were with me all the way".
They responded by chanting his name, singing Ole, Ole, Ole, and almost drowning out live TV interviews with calls for Shane to give them a wave.
And they had officials from the normally conservative R&A watching on in total bemusement.
Long-in-the-tooth commentators said it was a totally new experience for golf.
And Shane Lowry concurred.
"The next tournament I play is going to be so boring because I have never seen anything like this on a golf course. It feels like an out-of-body experience," said Shane, who had proved that golf in Ireland knows no borders as northern fans embraced the southerner as one of their own.
He even got good luck messages on social media from the people on the Shankill Road.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted — and expected — Lowry to emerge victorious after he soared into the lead on Saturday and never really looked like relinquishing it despite horrendous weather coming in and raining down on golfers who were unlucky enough to play in later phases of The Open yesterday afternoon.
Rory McIlroy, who missed the cut on Saturday, had publicly backed his friend Shane, and another local hero, Darren Clarke, who also failed to qualify, was seen early yesterday touring the course in a chauffeur-driven buggy.
Graeme McDowell, the last Ulsterman standing in The Open, was welcomed to the first tee with a remarkable ovation from a packed grandstand.
His performance didn't match expectations but the fans didn't let their admiration for him falter. They loudly cheered him onto the 18th green like a gladiatorial champion.
He said afterwards that he was proud of Portrush, of Northern Ireland and of Ireland. And Graeme, who was in tears later as he met Shane Lowry's family, said The Open golfers were raving about Portrush.
"They just love the golf course.
"They feel like it's the best links they've ever seen," added Graeme, whose acclaim from the home town crowd was even eclipsed by the ear-splitting roars at the first tee as the fans got their first glimpse of Lowry.
He was all smiles on the practice green but as he waited to hit his first shot he looked nervous as if he was struggling to detach himself from the hysteria around him.
A fist-bump with caddy Martin brought him back into the zone.
And it emerged that the two men had spent a crucial 40 minutes talking tactics over coffee in a quiet corner of the Bushmills Inn before The Open actually started.
Among the 10-deep throng at the first tee was Shane's second cousin Lisa Mulvihill from Ballinasloe who said she couldn't stay for any festivities even if her illustrious relative won The Open.
"I have to go to work tomorrow morning," she insisted.
Her friend Esther Lohan was also resigned to going back to Galway all too soon.
She said ruefully: "We've had a great time here.
"Everything has been organised magnificently.
"And it's been fantastic to see Shane doing so well.
"He is a really great guy.
"He is so down to earth. "
Dwarfed at the first tee beside the Galway girls was a ‘leprechaun' — seven-year-old Rocco McGrotty from Portstewart looking resplendent in a green outfit and outrageous hat... and an orange beard.
"I was supporting Tony Finau at first but I want Shane Lowry to win now," said Rocco, who is a cadet player at Royal Portrush.
Rocco's wishes were Shane's command.
Despite a wayward first shot he appeared to banish his nerves and was such a surefire winner that the R&A engraver was already adding his name to The Open trophy before he tackled the 18th hole. His triumphant march to the green was surrounded by raucous scenes as hundreds of fans flocked onto the fairway ahead of him and his caddy.
Dozens of blue-jacketed marshals headed the ‘invaders' off and helped Shane and Bo under a rope to get them safely to the green.
It was there, after the final putts, that the chairman of the R&A's championship committee, Clive Brown, performed the usual pleasantries, but said nothing about an Open return to Northern Ireland.
But people in Portrush weren't asking if the Open would come back to the redesigned Dunluce links course, but rather when?.
And why not?
Doom-laden warnings that tiny Portrush couldn't deal with hosting an Open were proved risible as worries over transport and accommodation evaporated.
And with plans in the pipeline for new hotels on the north coast, it's thought Royal Portrush will tick even more boxes for more Opens from the R&A, who were astonished by the unprecedented way that 237,000 tickets sold out for their championship.
Indeed, it's understood that officials from golf's governing body came to think in the build-up to The Open that Portrush could easily have accommodated thousands more spectators every day, though the host club wasn't so sure.
Tourism chiefs couldn't have been happier.
They're predicting a massive upsurge in visitor numbers after the thrilling Open was played out against a picture perfect postcard backdrop that was seen by hundreds of millions of TV viewers around the world.
What wasn't generally known was that the patron of Royal Portrush — Prince Andrew — spent several days closely following the action.
His visit wasn't announced in advance by royal courtiers and several fans said that at one stage a marshal tried to move the prince from his vantage point near a green because he didn't have the proper accreditation.
The penny later dropped.
However, it's understood Andrew was back in London yesterday before Shane, the man who lives in the Co Offaly village of Clara, got his hands on the Claret Jug.