By Simon Evans
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – For Rory McIlroy, Royal Portrush will always be the place where, at the age of 16, he broke the course record in stunning fashion, grabbing the attention of the golfing world.
But while that round of 61 at the 2005 North of Ireland Championship was clearly a sign of the great things to come for the four-times major winner, the arrival of the Open at the course has a significance for McIlroy beyond personal nostalgia.
It is 68 years since the one previous occasion when the course — and Northern Ireland — hosted an Open Championship and for much of that time the sectarian conflict in the country made such an event unthinkable.
Yet, such has been the progress in Northern Ireland since the signing of The Good Friday Agreement, in 1998, that what would once have been impossible now seems an almost natural event.
“I think it just means that people have moved on,” McIlroy said on Wednesday.
“It is a different time. It is a very prosperous place”
McIlroy was nine when the Good Friday Agreement came into affect and says that growing up just outside the capital Belfast he was largely “oblivious” to the violence and strife that had long dogged the country.
He recently watched the historical thriller “71” about a British soldier at the height of “The Troubles”, which was partly set where McIlroy grew up in Holywood.
“I remember asking my Mum and Dad, is this actually what happened?”
“It is amazing to think 40 years on that it is such a great place, no-one cares who they are, there they’re from, what background they’re from, but you can have a great life and it doesn’t matter what side of the street you come from,” he said.
“I think (this tournament) speaks volumes of where the country and where the people that live her are now. We’re so far past that. And that is a wonderful thing,” added McIlroy.
Some might quibble with McIlroy’s positive take on the contemporary situation, pointing to ongoing political difficulties and the remaining importance of identities in Northern Ireland, but what is beyond doubt is that this week’s tournament will be embraced enthusiastically by the locals.
Northern Ireland is one of golf’s heartlands, as the large and knowledgeable crowds at practice rounds this week and the sold-out ticket sales have shown.
As well as McIlroy, Northern Ireland has two other major winners in action this week in Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke.
Those two have closer connections to the town and its golf club than McIlroy but his own involvement goes back to childhood.
“My first memories of Portrush are coming up here to watch my Dad play in the North of Ireland,” said McIlroy.
“It has been a big part of my upbringing and it is sort of surreal that (The Open) is here.”
The support for McIlroy, the 2014 British Open champion, raises the inevitable questions about high expectations and pressure but the 30-year-old is trying to keep things in perspective.
“I’m going to love being out there and having the crowds and having the support,” he said. “If that can’t help you, then nothing can”.
(Reporting by Simon Evans, eiting by Ed Osmond)