It’s a case of up and at ‘em for Darren Clarke. The first tee-off time at the 148th Open Championship is 6.35am and Clarke will be awake long before the larks have even pondered flapping wearily at the snooze button.

Given the fevered excitement that has been generated by the Open’s return to Royal Portrush for the first time in 68 years, it’s surprising that Northern Irishman Clarke has had any sleep at all.

The 50-year-old, who owns a house overlooking the glorious Portrush links but funnily enough didn’t fancy letting it out to the golf writers, will get proceedings underway on Thursday in the first group with Amateur Championship winner, James Sugrue, and the American, Charley Hoffman.

Clarke, who is playing on the Senior Tour in the US these days, lifted the Claret Jug at Royal St George’s in 2011. He has missed the cut in three of the last four years but is gushing at the prospect of being an “honorary starter” of an Open in his homeland.

Colin Montgomerie performed the role in 2016 at Royal Troon, where his father was club secretary for more than 20 years, while Mark O’Meara did the necessaries in 2017 at Royal Birkdale, scene of his 1998 victory, and promptly drove out of bounds en route to an opening 81.


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Clarke was approached three weeks ago by R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers to do the duties. There was only ever going to be one answer. “Mr Slumbers asked me if I would do them the honour of hitting the opening tee shot,” said Clarke. “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. The atmosphere is going to be sensational.”

Portrush already feels packed to the rafters. Apparently one merchandise shop which took £48,000 on the first Sunday of business last year has taken a whopping £164,000 already this week.

Given the passion for golf in these airts, and the success of Northern Ireland’s golfers on the global stage in recent years, Portrush was always going to be a winner.

Not so long ago, as Northern Ireland struggled grimly through The Troubles, the thought of an Open coming to this part of the world would have been, well, unthinkable. Clarke had his own experiences of the fragility of life in those harrowing times.


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“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.

“That was life in Northern Ireland. Bombs were going off quite frequently. And a lot of people, unfortunately, paid a heavy penalty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that was our life back there at that stage.

“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 said of his trade secrets. “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.

“Whether I play well or don’t play well, it’s a huge thing for all the Irish golfers and for Northern Ireland.”