From improbable beginnings to glorious finale, the return of the Open Championship to Royal Portrush proved truly remarkable. “It started as a joke, ‘Why can’t we go back?’” said Graeme McDowell. “Then the jokes turned serious.”
For a young boy playing the Dunluce and Valley courses as a member of the neighboring Rathmore Golf Club, McDowell could scarcely dream of one day playing an Open in his hometown. In 2019 it became a reality and the game’s oldest championship had never seen anything quite like it in its 148 stagings. Not only was the Open a sell-out for the first time in its history — with a total attendance of 237,750 behind only St. Andrews in 2000 — but the passion and energy of the gallery created an atmosphere rarely seen in golf.
In hosting its biggest ever sporting event, Northern Ireland rolled out the warmest of welcomes, albeit reserving the greatest passion for their local heroes. McDowell was the only one to make the cut. Darren Clarke hit the opening tee shot and birdied the first hole on Thursday but was distraught not to make it to the weekend. Rory McIlroy shocked himself and everyone else by hitting out of bounds with his first shot and taking an opening quadruple bogey. He also departed early, coming up one birdie short of qualifying for the last 36 holes, but not before a thrilling ride on
Friday evening when he was cheered every step of the way. Never fear, however, for there was a new champion to hail from the Republic of Ireland. Shane Lowry, 32, from Clara in County Offaly, a four-hour drive away, may have started the week “under the radar,” in his words, but was borne on a wave of support so formidable that he produced the golf of his life. It resulted in a six-stroke victory over Tommy Fleetwood. The winning margin was entirely merited, the occasion never less than absorbing, so grand was it.
As Lowry came down the last couple of holes, the engraver already carving his name onto the historic Claret Jug, the cheering and chanting intensified again, echoing along the Antrim coastline seemingly forever. “I couldn’t believe it was happening to me,” Lowry said. “I tried to soak it in as much as I could but it was hard to do. So many people wanted me to win. It was such a surreal experience.”
There has always been a romantic appeal about the big fella ever since he won the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009. As a tour player, Lowry did not win often, but his victories were always impressive, not least at the 2015 WGC – Bridgestone Invitational. Yet when he missed the cut at Carnoustie in 2018 for the fourth successive time at the Open, he sat in his car and wept. “Golf wasn’t my friend at the time, I didn’t like doing it. What a difference a year makes!”
Lowry lost his PGA Tour card that season and had to regroup. In September he hired a new caddie, Brian “Bo” Martin, from Ardglass, Northern Ireland. In January 2019 he won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. In June he was runner-up to runaway winner McIlroy at the Canadian Open Still, living up to the achievements of his countrymen was not easy, not least his friend — and three-time major champion — Padraig Harrington. Along with his wife and young daughter, and his parents, Harrington and McDowell were among those to embrace Lowry when he walked off the 18th green. “I’m so happy I can add my name to our list of major champions, but I used to curse them an awful lot,” he admitted. “All anybody wanted to know about in Ireland was winning majors because they were winning so many.”
A long chat over coffee on the day before the Open with his coach-cum-psychologist Neil Manchip helped ease Lowry’s anxieties about the scale of the occasion to come. Once on the course, it was Martin who kept him calm. “I kept telling him how nervous I was, how scared I was, how much I didn’t want to mess it up,” Lowry said. “He was unbelievable. He kept talking to me, kept me in the moment. He’s a good friend and to share this with someone so close was very special. It helped an awful lot that people around me really believed I could do it. Neil always said I was going to win one, at least one. And look, now here I am, a major champion. I can’t believe I’m saying it.”
Lowry joined England’s Max Faulkner from 1951 as a Champion Golfer of the Year at Royal Portrush. The Open’s return to the venue was unthinkable at times. For so long the political turmoil and violence of the Troubles precluded any such notion. When Wilma Erskine, the club’s secretary/manager for 35 years until she retired in triumph in 2019, first arrived overseas visitors were so rare she said, “we would go out and hug them, we were so happy.”
Slowly, the visitors returned, investment in the course increased and tour naments followed. In 1993 the British Amateur was held for the first time in 33 years and two years later came the first of six Senior Open Championships. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was a vital step forward. But it was when Northern Irishmen started winning majors, following on from Harrington’s successes, that momentum grew. McDowell, Portrush born and bred, won the 2010 U.S. Open.
McIlroy, the Dunluce course record holder with a 61 aged 16, won the same major a year later. A month after that Clarke, by then a Portrush resident, won the Open at Sandwich. Peter Dawson, then chief executive of The R&A, was fielding questions constantly.
“No doubt about the golf course at Portrush,” he would say before raising concerns about infrastructure and commercial issues. An attendance of 130,000 when the club hosted the 2012 Irish Open suggested the latter would not be an issue. Indeed, when tickets went on sale almost a year in advance for the 2019 Open, they sold out in weeks, with a further batch offered in April being snapped up in hours. With the backing of the Northern Ireland government and agencies, the. logistics of dealing with so many people coming to the region were arranged meticulously. That still left an issue with the Dunluce Links itself catering for the infrastructure of a modern Open Championship. The old 18th hole could not accommodate the huge grandstands, so architect Martin Ebert devised a plan to create two new holes — the seventh, a par-five, and the par-four eighth — from land used by the Valley course. That meant the old 17th and 18th holes — relatively flat and out-of-keeping with the other 16 holes — could be utilized for the tented village. “He’s kept them in the character of Harry Colt and they have much more character than the holes they replaced,” said Clarke.
This was not the first time Colt’s 1930s masterpiece, which stretched the layout onto the dramatic sand dunes east of the town, had evolved in this way. When it became untenable to play from the original clubhouse in the town, two new holes were created out on the dunes. Ebert played the same trick with the best players in the world treated to a closing stretch that included the 236-yard par-three known as Calamity Corner as the new 16th and the old 16th, a dogleg par-four where Faulkner had played a miraculous shot on his way to victory in 1951, as the new finishing hole.
The chorus of approval from the competitors, usually a tough crowd to please, delighted McDowell. “People are saying it’s the best links they’ve ever seen,” he said. With weather conditions changing almost by the hour, it made for an exhilarating test — one that saw everything from a sad 91 from an injured David Duval on Thursday to a new course record of 63 by Lowry on Saturday. “The golf course has been phenomenal,” McDowell added. “We’ve seen flat, calm conditions, we’ve seen wind directions changing all week. You could say they’ve seen a lot of Portrush. I’m really, really proud. We knew this was going to be a special Open. To have an Irishman at the top of the leaderboard is extra, extra special. Hopefully, we can come back soon.”