Pádraig's 'Rush job
HARRINGTON is best of Irish with Dubliner just two off the lead at stormy Open
It was wet, it was windy, but nothing was going to stop fans turning out in huge numbers yesterday for the first Irish Open in Northern Ireland since 1953.
Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, the three major champions whose success helped to bring the event back across the border, were always going to have the biggest galleries lining the fairways.
But while none of them were able to break 70, Indian Jeev Milkha Singh and France's Gregory Bourdy were certainly not complaining about the number following them as they set the pace - either side of a 95-minute storm delay - with seven under par 65s.
"The atmosphere and the feel to the golf course is fantastic," said Milkha Singh. "When you have so many people cheering and watching you I think you feel great."
England's Mark Foster, part of a group on 66, commented: "It was just amazing out there.
"I got a six o'clock car to the course and, I kid you not, there were people queueing to get in - even though the rain was coming sideways.
"I've never seen a buzz in the players' lounge like there is this week. People are raving about the course and the size of the crowds."
It is the first time organisers put the "sold out" signs up for a regular European Tour event, with 27,000 tickets purchased for each day's play.
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy Martin McGuinness, fresh from his historic handshake with the Queen a day earlier, were also in attendance to witness scenes that might one year soon be repeated at an Open Championship.
McDowell was the first of the three local heroes into action, but hitting a pitch into bushes for a double bogey seven on the 581-yard 17th - his eighth - took the wind out of his sails and he had to settle for a one under 71.
Clarke, yet to make his first halfway cut of the year and out for the past month with a groin strain, contented himself with matching that after a hat-trick of bogeys had left him two over after eight.
World number two McIlroy, meanwhile, reached four under, but three-putted the 16th and 18th in what he called "a sloppy finish" and signed for a 70.
Before the tournament Clarke had presented Singh with a bottle of 21-year-old Bushmills single malt whisky, but he is keeping that until he can share it with his father Milkha - the "Flying Sikh" who lost out on an Olympic 400 metres medal in a photo-finish in 1960 and about whom a film is currently being made.
Singh, whose own dream is to represent India on the sport's return to the Games in 2016, is a real lover of links golf.
Not that anybody who witnessed his first experience of it would have guessed that - as a 16-year-old in 1988 he competed in the Amateur Championship at Royal Porthcawl in Wales, but had rounds of 87 and 84 there and at Pyle and Kenfig to miss out on the match play stages.
"I thought 'My God, this is tough'. I wasn't used to wearing raingear." He has got used to that now -- and clearly improved.
Dubliner Pádraig Harrington, playing with McDowell and equally thrilled at seeing the tournament come north, pitched in from around 60 yards for birdie on his penultimate hole and with a 67 is firmly in the hunt.
Defending champion Simon Dyson, the third member of the group, matched that, while Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal and Scot Paul Lawrie - playing together for the third time in under two months - both shot 69.
Another former Open champion, American John Daly, was in the first group out at 7.30am and returned a 71.
Asked if he was a good early riser he replied: "I am now. I get up when I used to get in!"
Much to everyone's relief, the event resumed in bright sunshine after the stoppage and the round was completed. Bourdy did not finish until 8.40pm and would have been outright leader if he had birdied the long ninth, but he parred it.