By Simon Evans
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke said he was ready for the wave of support and sense of history at The Open Championship at Royal Portrush, but was more emotional than he expected when he struck Thursday’s first tee-shot.
The Open has not been held at Portrush for 68 years and as a previous winner of the tournament who lives in the town, the 50-year-old Clarke was given the honour of getting things under way.
“I didn’t think I’d feel the way I did,” he said after completing an even-par round of 71.
“But the support, the crowds, there was just something about it… When I was about to hit my tee-shot, I just thought, ‘Wow, it’s the Open Championship and we are back here in Portrush’.”
“It was more emotional than I thought it was going to be, to be honest. I was very proud stood on the first tee, hitting that first tee shot,” he added.
It was Clarke’s win in the 2011 Open at Royal St George’s in Kent that prompted talks between the tournament organisers and Northern Irish players, including Portrush native Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, about bringing the event back to the course.
“It’s huge. But it’s not me. I think Rory summed it up perfectly: The Open wasn’t about him; it was about how far our country has come,” Clarke said.
“How far it’s moved forward. The economic benefits of what this tournament is going to bring, not just this week, but the legacy going forward, what it’s going to bring to the country.
“If you go back and take a look at some of the pictures 20 years ago, we wouldn’t be standing having this conversation. And you go down the street, maybe not here, but you see police everywhere, you see Army everywhere, you don’t see that anymore. We’re very proud of our country,” he said.
Clarke was also quite proud of the way he handled the course on Thursday, collecting three birdies from the opening five holes before a bogey on the par-five seventh tempered his impressive start.
“The first six holes I was really enjoying them and playing with a little bit of freedom, then after I made that bogey I got a little bit defensive, almost,” he said.
“I don’t know, I was trying to not make mistakes, as opposed to playing a little bit better. And then I’d have spells where I’d hit a couple lovely shots and make birdies and do some stupid things and make bogeys. I guess that comes with being 50, really,” he quipped.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis)