PORTRUSH, IRELAND -- A country with a storied maritime history should know a thing or two about 'all hands on deck.' The people of Northern Ireland have done exactly that at this week's Irish Open at Royal Portrush.
With four sell-out days -- the first sellout event ever for the European Tour -- it's evident that the Irish adore their golf, especially when it's hosted in their backyard on one of the world's finest links courses.
It's been a long time coming since Northern Ireland received a golf event of this magnitude. While the Walker Cup and Senior British Open were held in the north recently, Portrush last hosted the Irish Open in 1947 and hosted the British Open Championship just once in in 1951. A tumultuous few decades during 'The Troubles' until the mid-1990s kept most international events and tourists at bay.
But with peacetime taking a firm hold for over a decade, not to mention local stars Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke all triumphing in recent major championships, this little country is enjoying a reintroduction back into the international spotlight.
It's been an exciting ride in the last year beyond the major triumphs of McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke. Belfast hosted the MTV Europe Video Music Awards. This year, the Titanic Experience, an epic, nine-gallery exhibition opened and has welcomed 200,000 visitors already through its doors. Each headline that showcases the country's peace and prosperity, like the handshake between Martin McGinnis and the Queen of England that took place this week, seems to put the unrest of The Troubles further back in the minds of both residents and tourists alike.
Northern Ireland: British, Irish or both?
So how can one course host both the Irish Open and British Open, anyways? Spend a week in Northern Ireland and you'll learn of a fascinating, albeit bloody history. The explanation is a complicated one, requiring a long history lesson over at least a few pints with a resident - most of whom were born-and-raised here despite the decades of turmoil.
The simple answer, as my Belfast tour guide Billy Scott described his country's unique duel identity, is that Northern Ireland can be as British or Irish as its residents care to be: 'It's a good arrangement,' he said. 'Because you can do a wee bit of pick and mix.'
The government and currency are British. For tourists, the well-maintained and signposted roadways resemble that of Scotland more than Ireland, too (and anyone who has ever tried traversing some of Ireland's rural roads, especially in the northwest, will agree this is a good thing).
But the rest of the vibe around the country is overwhelmingly Irish. The Guinness flows, as does Bushmills whiskey in the pubs around the north coast and Belfast. The craic is delightful and golf clubs, like Castlerock, Portstewart and Bushfoot, are friendly and welcoming to visiting golfers.
The fact is, both Ireland and Britain embrace this little corner of Eire as their own, and there is plenty to love.
Crowds swell at the Irish Open Wednesday Pro-Am thru Sunday finish
On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of playing with John Daly in the Irish Open Pro-Am in bright sunshine and hardly any wind. Rounding out our foursome was legendary Northern Ireland football goalkeeper Pat Jennings and actor Aidan Quinn. 14,000 fans turned out for the exhibition, filling the grandstands at the first tee by 9 a.m. and surrounding most greens. Even better, the crowds were gracious with applause, whether it was for a pro or celeb's shot -- or from a more faceless amateur like myself.
Daly, in Northern Ireland for the first time, was in good spirits and excited to be competing back on a links. Upon walking off the 5th green, the closest point to the coast's mighty cliffs and Dunluce Castle ruins, he was taken aback.
'Man, it's like a painting!' he exclaimed to his caddie, gazing across the coastline. It's safe to say Portrush will leave a positive impression on the Open Champion, who confirmed to me that these links surely felt like a major championship venue in his eyes.
Daly also said he thought the worse the weather got, the better he liked his chances this week. 'I hope it blows,' the 1995 Open Champion said. 'Then half the field is taken out right there.' Despite mostly wet, calm conditions, he made the cut and finished T-24. Keegan Bradley, the other high-profile American in the field, missed the cut.
Meanwhile, the winner on Sunday, Wales' Jamie Donaldson, was understandably thrilled about the event.
'I don't think we've ever played a better golf course on the European Tour,' said Donaldson. 'It's that good. The course is incredible. The crowds are unbelievable.'
While the four Irish major champions all made the cut but failed to seriously contend, it's safe to say the foursome will likely get another crack sometime soon at Royal Portrush. The question, is will it be at a future Irish Open - or will it be that long-awaited British Open?