Northern Ireland

The Open 2019 diary: 'Chance of a lifetime' for early birdies

Fans at the Open
Image caption Brian Miller (top left) and his young sons left home at 03:30 BST to get a good spot on the course

The thousands queued outside Royal Portrush from early morning showed the international appeal of The Open.

Americans, South Africans and Australians joined local golf fans waiting patiently to get in.

It was a moment of sporting history that they did not want to miss. It was cold, there was the threat of rain, but they did not care.

Nothing was going to stop them seeing Darren Clarke hit that historic first shot.

It's estimated that at least 5,000 spectators were on the course before the first shot was hit at 06:35 BST by Darren Clarke.

Among them was Brian Miller from Moira, with his two boys Ewan, 11, and Scott, nine.

He left home at 03:30 BST to make sure he arrived on time. "It's the chance of a lifetime. I wasn't going to miss it," he said.

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Image caption Dungannon's Darren Clarke in action at the seventh hole in the opening round

Most of the people in the queue were not born the last time The Open was played in Portrush in 1951.

Bold outfits and bolder predictions

Image caption Scott Teising and Robert Knight sporting bold prints at the Open

It takes a special kind of optimism to emphatically state that Rory McIlroy is going to win the Open after starting with a quadruple bogey.

But Scott Teising and Robert Knight are happy to go bold… be it with predictions or clothing.

Scott from Dallas, Texas, decided to come to the Open when his Washington State pal asked him a month ago.

Despite arriving in Dublin on Wednesday with no tickets, they managed to make it inside Royal Portrush for the first day's play and are keen to see more.

Scott said: "We flew in with our wives and are just thrilled to be here. We are looking tickets for Sunday too, so hopefully these outfits help a bit.

Asked who they fancied to win, Rob would also settle for a Brooks Koepka or Tiger Woods victory come Sunday, but even if much of the golfing world was writing off Rory's chances, Scott was having none of it.

"We think Rory's going to win the tournament even after starting with an eight. It's going to be him and Tiger in a play-off and and he's going to win it.

"You can quote me on that come Sunday."

No need Scott, the Diary has done it already.

Home favourites

Aside from the hordes of kids following McIlroy like a golfing pied piper, there's one group of people in particular who'll be keeping a keen eye on him at Portrush.

Each hole on the Dunluce course is being marshalled by volunteer members of different golf clubs.

The club chosen to direct the spectator traffic at the 14th is none other than Rory's home club of Holywood.

"Rory's hole", as it has now been dubbed, is a 473-yard par four which most players will be happy to par, but the men and women in the pale blue marshals' outfits will be trying to raise their man to greater heights.

Image copyright GLYN KIRK
Image caption Rory McIlroy's fans, friends and family are hoping the Holywood star will shine this week

Husband-and-wife team Conor and Fiona O'Kane, who were manning the greenside grandstand, heard just how great Rory would be when they joined Holywood in 2004.

"At the time Gerry McIlroy was bar manager and talked about how good his son was at golf," said Fiona.

"We used to say: 'Wouldn't it be great if your Rory was good enough to get on tour?' That's how much we knew."

Nowadays Conor and Fiona are diehard members of Team Rory.

Fiona admits she sometimes finds it hard to watch when he's in contention, saying: "I just get too anxious."

Image caption Conor and Fiona O'Kane are marshalling one of the grandstands

For his part, Conor feels that just because McIlroy hasn't won a major since 2014, the World No 3 is harshly judged.

"He's still one of the best golfers in the world and as good as anyone on his day."

Despite his rocky start on Thursday, there will certainly be plenty of people with an added incentive to back him on the 14th.

G Mac's in cider knowledge

If there's one man rivalling Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods for shouts of encouragement this week it is Portrush's own Graeme McDowell.

By his own estimation he must have walked past the clubhouse photo of Fred Daly with the Claret Jug in his hand "about 10,000 times" and the former US Open winner is immensely proud to see the Open on his home turf.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Graeme McDowell braved the practice ground on Wednesday morning

While G Mac fancies his chances if he can "settle down" on the front nine, it is his countryman Rory McIlroy who holds the bragging rights around the Dunluce links with a course record 61, shot when he was just 16.

But did McDowell ever match that total in all the times he's played here?

"I remember 63 in a casual round. A couple of times.

"Never in the North of Ireland qualifier, which is when Rory did his.

"When you've got a card in your pocket and you're playing the competition pins, a score like that is a real score.

"Not when you're out maybe having a Magners on the 10th tee with the lads, that's not a real 63… maybe it's a better one, who knows?"

Rain game

If the first few days of glorious sunshine at Royal Portrush defied the Irish weather gods, then on Wednesday they had their revenge.

Strong winds and stinging rain saw spectators cowering under umbrellas and plastic ponchos, while even some golfers thought better of it.

Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell both braved the practice ground in the morning, hitting balls in hopefully the worst conditions of the week, but when burly Spaniard Jon Rahm stepped onto the first tee for his tune-up he stood around for 10 minutes, looked to the skies and thought better of it.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Crowds brave the weather during a practice round on Wednesday

The rain in Spain may fall mainly on the plain but in Northern Ireland it falls where it wants to.

Mind you, while casual golf fans might prefer a sun-drenched week, there are plenty who don't want to see the Dunluce link humbled by the world's best in benign conditions.

Said one fan arriving at the course on Wednesday: "This here is exactly what I wanted to see… a real test. This will tighten them!"

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Media captionThe Open 2019: 'It's the local accent' - Tiger Woods struggles to understand BBC reporter

As the day wore on the rain relented but not the wind.

If the forecast is anything to go by, the man who lifts the Claret Jug on Sunday on Sunday will have conquered most of the elements as well as the golf course.

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