I realize that my love of links golf in general and The Open Championship in particular border on the irrational. The unpredictability of the bounce of the ball, the penal nature of fairway bunkers, the sweeping vistas of the treeless landscape that often take in breathtaking views of the Atlantic, the North Sea, or various firths, and of course, the weather. My heart figuratively skipped a beat when I saw a forecast predicting the following:
Yes, lassies and ladies, genuine Open Championship weather will visit Royal Portrush this week. If only Tom Watson could somehow contend . . .
But let’s get to the matters at hand. Adding to the giddy uncertainty (sorry, can’t help myself) of this year’s Open is the venue itself. Royal Portrush, long considered to be one of the great links courses in the world (and second only to Royal County Down in Northern Island), hasn’t hosted an Open since 1951 for reasons both practical and, sadly, political. We’ll discuss the former first.
Portrush is located on the northern tip of Northern Island (on a clear day, one can view it from the Mull of Kintype in Scotland. At times, various ferry services connected the two). While Belfast is easily accessible by air and by land from the south, getting to Portrush was a struggle for years. And while the town of approximately 7,000 adequately handled summer resort traffic, it was nowhere near equipped to accommodate the hoards that gather for an Open. Both of these concerns have been addressed with significant infrastructure improvements, which will prove to be a necessity – for the first time, an Open Championship has been completely sold out; 190,000 tickets sold, and no walk-up tickets available.
Politically, the long-standing “troubles” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland made hosting any sporting event in the North extremely risky and bringing the Open there all but impossible. The Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998 opened the door to improved relations between the two countries, which greatly reduced (but not completely eliminated) violence between either’s extremist factions. The recent Brexit controversy has only served to bring anxiety about renewing those tensions.
But for at least this week, Portrush hosts a true celebration of links golf, and along with the recent smash success of Lahinch’s hosting of The Irish Open, should bring welcome golf travel attention to the entire island, regardless of borders. I know it’s on my list.
As no living golfer has played Royal Portrush as an Open venue, trying to pick a winner (always a dicey proposition anyway) is nearly impossible. Here are some totally useless observations that required much more than just a grain of salt if one is considering a wager:
HOME COURT ADVANTAGE! – Rory McIlroy, Graham McDowell, and Darren Clarke are all native sons of Northern Ireland. McDowell and Clarke are members of Portrush, while McIlroy holds the course record of 61, a score he recorded at the age of 16. In considering any of these players, on needs to consider the following:
- Clarke, who has facially aged better than any Irishman this side of Sean Connery, is, while officially in the tournament, largely in a ceremonial role for this championship. A win by him might possible empty the country of Bushmill’s.
- McDowell could be a dark horse, or at minimum a decent inclusion to fill out a fantasy team (where such activities are allowed, of course!). He’s enjoyed a productiv season and survived the cut at Pebble Beach in last year’s US Open. But his chances of winning are only slightly better than those of Clarke.
- The People’s Choice this week will be McIlroy. Although his score of 61 is no longer considered the official record as there have been changes made to the course, Rory knows enough about Royal Portrush, and, of course, his talent is undeniable. But his play in the majors has been spotty since his PGA Championship victory in 2014, and one has to wonder if the pressure on him to win will be unmanageable.
INSIDER INFORMATION! – Brooks Koepka is the one US star who made his bones on the European Tour, and his caddie, Ricky Elliot – surprise! – was born in Portrush and remains a member. Koepka supposedly is leaning heavily on Elliot for local knowledge and is keeping it to himself to the point that not even Tiger Woods is privy. That aside, the main reason for putting a quid or two on Brooks Koepka is, well, he’s Brooks Koepka.
TIGER! TIGER! TIGER! – Golf prowess aside, Tiger is a one-man content generator, and while his play since The Masters has ranged from dismal to middle of the road, there’s been no shortage of speculation about his performance at Royal Portrush:
- “He rested!” “He’s rusty!”
- “The weather favors him! He can work the ball either way against the wind!” “The weather hurts him! His back won’t hold up!”
- “He’s no longer named in the lawsuit against his restaurant!” “But his girlfriend is!”
And so on. The fact is, Tiger could win the damn thing. He could also miss the cut, badly. Neither would surprise me. My prediction – no matter what the outcome, every one of his shots will be televised.
THE GOLF NERD SAYS! – What the hell do I know? Particularly when it comes to The Open. But I believe the following:
- Take Koepka over McIlroy
- Henrik Stenson has looked good recently, and it was only a few years ago that he won it
- I don’t feel it for Tiger this week
- The defending champ, Francesco Molinari, hasn’t been the same since The Masters
- Justin Rose? Maybe. Jon Rahm? Nah.
- Because it rains so much in Ireland in general, Royal Portrush will show better on television than any other of the Open Championship venues, and will most likely have many observers swooning.
As I mentioned in my piece about The Irish Open – best to set your alarm clock early, and best to set another clock to Irish time so you can enjoy adult beverages guilt free.