Amid all the and doom and gloom over Brexit, I can’t let this week pass without a hefty mention of the Open at Royal Portush. Here surely is a piece of British exceptionalism all can enjoy, the un-neurotic side of identity. Note that it’s called “the Open”. No “British” prefix is needed (although I see the Irish Times wouldn’t you know it has added it, just in case somebody thinks it’s the Uzbek Open). This piece of swagger was pointed out to me in wonderment years ago by the German ambassador of the day called yes, Baron von Richtofen, that as the founder of several world class phenomena, not all of them sport, national descriptions were uniquely omitted: the RFU for English rugby; no national identifier on the stamps except the monarch – and the Open. Just to reassure the uninformed, the Irish Open was a great rehearsal and all Ireland is pitching in.
I cling to a little bit of local identification. The star backers whose achievements did so much to bring the Open to Portrush are of course Rory McIlroy, junior champion here at 16 from Holywood; Darren Clarke, from Dungannon but now resident at Portrush; and Graeme McDowell, a pure local. My old school the former Coleraine Inst now part of the co-ed Coleraine Grammar has supplied a string of club presidents I was at school with. Yes I know you’re not supposed to mention such things but what the hell. I caught early stirrings of preparations for the great event when I did an after dinner speech at the club house a couple of years ago.
My dad told me the two year old me was present at the last occasion in 1951 when anybody could approach the tee. I’m told I called out, “Daddy what’s that man doing?” and halted somebody’s swing. But then I’m pretty sure that story is not unique to me. I caught a glimpse the old school colours blazer in the terrific archive film of that 1951 Open. It didn’t do too badly in its 180 years, Coleraine Inst. Two silvers and a bronze in rowing at London 2012, was streets better than David Cameron’s and Boris Johnson’s old school, so there.
And it nurtured an Open champion and the former captain of the school golf club in Florida-based Graeme McDowell, (pronounced “Midole” accurately in flat Ulster for the big film voiced over by another old boy Jimmy Nesbitt rather than the fey “Mac Dowell” and is “prow” of gentler rendering). Graeme it turns out was a poor boy who learned his skills at Rathmore, as he recounted in his blog.
It’s going to be an extremely proud week to be from the North Coast of Ireland.
.Even for the likes of myself, Rory and Darren, it’s a bit special to see it coming back to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951. I never really thought that I would see it in my career. I was born and bred in Portrush, but Rory and Darren are also synonymous with Portrush for good reasons. Rory has competed there for many years and shot 61 in his early teens and Darren moved there in his 20s when he married Heather, who was a local girl. I always remember when my school bus went past Darren’s house and I used to look out the window to see what Ferrari or Porsche was in the driveway and thinking to myself that one day that could be me.
When I think back all those years ago when I was taking up the game with my brothers and my dad, we were members of Rathmore Golf Club, which is built upon land owned by Royal Portrush. There’s no point beating around the bush here: as a family, we simply couldn’t afford to be members of Portrush. In fact, if we had lived in a part of the world where golf was more expensive, I would never have played the game. It’s that simple.
Thankfully, places like Britain and Ireland treat golf as a game of the people for the most part so my dad got into the game in his 30s and just instantly got the bug and was able to introduce the game to his kids. My dad gave a huge amount of his time to the kids at my club when I was young and he, and my uncle, Uel Loughrey, ran the Junior section at Rathmore for many years and really drove it forward. We would have a winter league where we would be out there in all sorts of conditions. We would have competitions and summer leagues and play with the adults. We used to have an adult / junior nine holes on a Saturday afternoon, which a lot of the members supported as well. They were great days. We had a great bunch of kids including Ricky Elliott, who has been caddying so successfully for Brooks Koepka for the last several years. He was a fantastic player and the guy we all wanted to emulate when I was young.
I remember having the opportunity when I was about 16 to join Royal Portrush and play for their teams because I was starting to become one of the stand out juniors in the country. My dad was a proud man, and I think he would have thrown me out of the house if I had done that!!!! It was my dad’s pride that made me stay where I was and he taught me to never forget my roots and show some loyalty for the people that had given me the game of golf. To bring the U.S. Open trophy back to the club of Rathmore was special. I mean that with no disrespect to Royal Portrush in any shape or form. This is about my roots, and to be able to bring that U.S. Open trophy back in 2010 was so special for my dad because he and everyone at Rathmore had helped raise me in the game of golf, and to achieve one of the four ultimate prizes in the game and bring it home to Rathmore was incredible.
I literally cannot wait to feel the power and force of the home support next week. It’s going to be phenomenal. The home fans bring their own pressure and expectation but I am going to try and use their energy as motivation to play well and do everyone proud.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London