Sunday 13 October 2019

Clarke: A huge honour

2011 Open winner to get 2019 event underway

Darren Clarke willbe first to tee off in this year’s British Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday
Darren Clarke willbe first to tee off in this year’s British Open at Royal Portrush on Thursday

Darren Clarke insists he had no hesitation in accepting an invite to hit the opening tee shot as he reflected on the "incredible journey" which has brought the Open Championship back to Northern Ireland after an absence of 68 years.

Clarke, who owns a house overlooking Royal Portrush, is scheduled to get play under way at 6.35am on Thursday alongside Amateur Championship winner James Sugrue from Ireland and American Charley Hoffman.

The 50-year-old lifted the Claret Jug at Royal St George's in 2011 but has missed the cut in three of the last four years and would be well aware of the connotations attached to being an "honorary starter".

Clarke was approached three weeks ago by R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers and said: "Mr Slumbers asked me if I would do them the honour of hitting the opening tee shot. It's Royal Portrush and when the R&A ask you, it's a definite yes. I said I'd love it.

"It's the first time we've been here since 1951 and he asked me to do it and I happily accepted. Sometimes it can be a good draw teeing off here at half six in the morning too. We'll see.

"Will there be tears? No. I'll just be very proud that we have it back here in Northern Ireland. It's a huge thing. It's going to be an amazing tournament."

Former world number one Rory McIlroy, who was born 60 miles away on the outskirts of Belfast, was among those who never dreamt of being able to play a major championship on home soil.

And it was indeed unthinkable for decades due to the Troubles, of which Clarke had life-threatening first-hand experience in 1986.

"It was a job that I had setting up a bar and there was a bomb behind it," Clarke recalled. "We got a bomb scare at 8.30, everybody out, bomb went off at 9:00 and the place was flattened.

"You think about at that stage whether we were ever going to have a tournament such as this. It was beyond the realms of possibility. It was just never going to happen.

"So to get to this point has been an incredible journey for what we've all come through."

Clarke's experience of Royal Portrush means he has been in demand for practice rounds in recent weeks, with the likes of Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Matt Wallace all taking advantage of his local knowledge.

"I probably told them too much really," Clarke joked. "Of course I want to beat them. But at the same time, they're all good guys, I like them all. I've been giving them whatever information that they wanted and a little bit more.

McIlroy, who set the course record of 61 at Portrush as a 16-year-old, will get his quest for a first major title in five years under way at 10.09am alongside US Open champion Gary Woodland and Paul Casey.

McIlroy admits it would "mean the world" to win a second Open title on home soil as Northern Ireland hosts the event for just the second time and the first since Max Faulkner's victory in 1951.

Portrush native Graeme McDowell is off at 09.14am in the company of 2016 winner Henrik Stenson and American Xander Schauffele.

Three-time winner Tiger Woods tees off at 3.10pm with his Ryder Cup team-mate Patrick Reed and England's Matt Wallace.

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