Darren Clarke hit the first shot as The Open returned to Royal Portrush, shooting an even-par 71 while giving local fans plenty of reason to cheer.
By Will Gray
Portrush resident Darren Clarke had the opportunity to hit the first tee shot in The Open's return to Royal Portrush, and he quickly showed why that honor was richly deserved.
The 2011 Champion Golfer of the Year appeared emotional early Thursday morning as he started the first major in Northern Ireland in 68 years. But his drive flew straight and true, and minutes later he rolled in the first birdie putt of the tournament.
But Clarke showed no interest in stopping with opening-hole pleasantries. He went on to birdie three of his first five holes, briefly holding sole possession of the lead before settling for an even-par 71 that proved more than respectable for the man who will turn 51 next month.
"It was great," Clarke said. "I probably smiled a little bit more today than I have been, than I normally do. But I was trying to show my appreciation to all the people around here today. So it was wonderful."
Eight years removed from his triumph at Royal St. George's, Clarke entered this week having missed the cut in three of his last four Open appearances. But the magic of Portrush was undeniable Thursday, as one of the tournament's de facto hosts got things underway amid raucous cheers from the spectators surrounding the opening tee box.
Having played in dozens of big events and having hit the opening tee shot at a Ryder Cup, Clarke shared that getting a Portrush Open off the ground was among the most memorable moments of his career.
"That was pretty much up there. I didn't think I'd feel the way I did," Clarke said. "But the support, everything from the crowds, just everything about it sort of when I was about to hit my tee shot, 'Wow, it's The Open Championship, we're back in Portrush.' It was amazing."