Northern Ireland

The Open 2019: Darren Clarke writes new chapter

Darren Clarke Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Darren Clarke had the honour of hitting the first tee shot at the 148th Open Championship

Darren Clarke has hit a million golf balls, all around the world and in every corner of Ireland.

But none has been more significant than the one launched into a pale blue sky at 06:35 BST on Thursday.

The moment it was struck the Open proper had begun and with it a fresh chapter in Northern Ireland's often unpalatable history was written.

Tens of thousands of golf fans have travelled to the north coast for the Open.

The four tournament days (Thursday 18 to Sunday 21 July) are sold out, with 237,750 spectators expected - more than any other Open except for the 2000 spectacle at St Andrews, which drew in 239,000 fans.

On Saturday evening, as the crowds spill out of a wild and intoxicating amphitheatre, the Portrush Sons of Ulster will host a "celebration of marching bands" in the town centre.

But this week it has been the three golfing sons of Ulster reflecting on the journey that brought them and the Open to this corner of County Antrim.

Image caption Northern Ireland's three Major winners - Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke - celebrate their successes in 2014

As the eldest of the triumvirate, Clarke perhaps knows best the decades of pain endured by Northern Ireland and its people.

Born in 1968, before the Troubles began, the Dungannon man lost family members and almost his own life when just a teenager trying to fund his sporting obsession.

Working a shift setting up the bar at the Inn on the Park in 1986, an IRA bomb warning came through just half an hour before the building was destroyed.

"That was life in Northern Ireland," he said.

"Bombs were going off quite frequently and a lot of people, unfortunately, paid a heavy penalty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Back then, what's happening this week looked, in his words, "beyond the realms of possibility".

'Child of the peace'

Graeme McDowell, the man who set Northern Ireland's major ball rolling at the 2010 US Open, is simply ecstatic that one of the world's biggest sporting events has come to his home town.

"To have played a small role, I guess, in kind of getting the gears in motion again to get The Open Championship back here, I mean, it's a proud moment to see it come together.

"People are just genuinely fired up and excited. It's such a big thing for this part of the world."

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The Troubles in NI lasted for 30 years during which thousands of people died

By virtue of the fact he hits a small white ball better than almost anyone on the planet, Rory McIlroy has been asked to expound on all things from the tribal politics of Ireland to the tweets of the US President.

While he's made the odd misstep, for the most part he speaks with a candour and poise beyond many in elected office.

If Clarke was a child of the Troubles, then Rory is a child of the peace - his formative years spent learning his craft at Holywood Golf Club, sheltered from the dying throes of conflict.

In the same year that the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the golfing prodigy was winning his first international title, the 9-10 World Championship at the Doral Golf Resort in Miami, USA.

His dream of Northern Ireland is a place where children are not judged by the colour of their passports but by the content of their character.

"People have moved on. It's a different time.

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Media captionThe Open 2019: Watch McIlroy's nightmare start as he quadruple bogeys the first

"No one cares who they are, where they're from, what background they're from, you can have a great life and it doesn't matter what side of the street you come from," he adds.

While the Troubles were all consuming for the people who lived here, the world only tuned in to see our worst excesses.

This week the Open is being beamed to 600 million homes around the globe.

The world is again watching Northern Ireland but for all the right reasons.

'An incredible journey'

As McIlroy said: "It speaks volumes of where the country and where the people that live here are now.

"Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together. We all know that this country sometimes needs that."

But the last word should go to Clarke, the man who struck the Open's first shot and sent the crowds into rapture with an opening birdie.

Speaking after level par round of 71, he said an enduring peace process had turned fantasy into reality.

"Go back and take a look at some of the pictures 20 years ago, we wouldn't be standing having this conversation.

Image copyright Andrew Redington
Image caption Tens of thousands of people have travelled to Northern Ireland for The Open

"I think Rory summed it up perfectly - the Open wasn't about him, it was about how far our country has come.

"The economic benefits this tournament is going to bring, not just this week, but the legacy going forward, what it's going to bring to the country."

As he said at the start of a week like no other: "This has been an incredible journey for what we've all come through."

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