Gary McNeill can’t count the number of times he has sat in the 18th grandstand and watched the best in the world begin the greatest walk in golf. Little did he know that one day he would sample it himself.
The Royal Portrush head professional lived his dream on Saturday, playing as the marker at The 148th Open alongside Paul Waring on the course he has called home for 20 years.
Although his opening tee shot – played in front of hundreds of spectators and the live TV cameras – veered off into the left rough, the sight of McNeill inside the ropes is another magical moment for The 148th Open scrapbook.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy may have attracted thousands of spectators during their rounds but it was the Royal Portrush club members who lined the fairways and encouraged McNeill and his caddie – Paul ‘The Rocket’ Rodich, a member for 45 years and part-time caddie for 52, as they went around.
For them, this was just as special and surreal as seeing Woods on their course.
“I have been to a lot of Opens but to experience it was unbelievable,” McNeill said. “It was crazy, it really was. I have been preparing for it in my mind for a long time but when you get the call, it’s amazing. I slept well last night and I played OK, putted well and hit nicely off the tee. It was a lot of fun. I probably shot around 79 or 80.
“I am really glad I put myself through it. I might need a lie down though! I was okay on the first tee, I warmed up this morning but as soon as I pulled my club back I knew it was not going to be good.
“There were a lot of the members out there, friends and family as well, so it was nice. I hit a really good putt on 17 so that was nice.”
McNeill has been the course pro at Royal Portrush for 20 years, is friends with Darren Clarke and has done some light coaching with both Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell.
But he also has enjoyed a distinguished amateur career, including an Irish Amateur Championship win at Ballybunion in 1991 and the Irish Boys Championship four years prior.
But his real passion is coaching and he started at nearby Royal County Down, had a stint in Dublin and eventually replaced Dai Stevenson at Royal Portrush.
With Clarke, he would do some video sessions and they would bounce ideas off each other, becoming firm friends. McNeill was at Royal St George’s in 2011 to see Clarke become Champion Golfer of the Year and even stuck around for the after party.
“We actually flew over that morning, we got a flight out of Belfast City airport into Manston airport which was open at that time – we came off the flight and there’s nothing there, the one taxi in the car park drove us to the golf course and caught him just in time before he went off,” he said.
“We followed him all the way round the golf course and then we ended up staying the night. We ended up having a good party that night. I ended up driving his Range Rover home the next day from Sandwich to Portrush which was quite a job – there wasn’t a lot of sleep the night before, either."
“The drive home was horrible though and it rained all day. The worst thing was we got to Stranraer and we missed the boat by about three minutes – they’d closed the gate over and they wouldn’t let us on.
“The cars sat for a good hour before they went on to the ferry as well, but we had to wait for hours for the next boat.”
McNeill’s long love affair with The Open was sparked at Royal Troon in 1982, where he saw Tom Watson become Champion Golfer of the Year.
The pair would later have lunch and the American is back this year, probably not expecting to see McNeill on the tee.
“We had the Queen here a couple of years ago for a civic lunch and Rory is in here quite a lot, but other than that Tom Watson is probably one of the most famous we’ve had," he added.
“We’ve had Bill Murray here before too. I actually got to play with him. They were filming a movie in Belfast in 2010 or 2011, but then he came back here for the Irish Open in 2012 as an ambassador for the tournament.
“He is a really entertaining guy and you never know what’s going to happen next when he’s around.”
If McNeill has learned anything in the last 24 hours, it’s that you never know what is going to happen at all.