IT’S that time of the golfing year when all and sundry have a go at predicting the unpredictable. And they tend to get it spectacularly wrong. Experts, analysts, pundits, commentators, bookmakers, doyens, past players, current players, swing gurus, soothsayers, religious zealots, . . . even the golf writers have a go.

Everybody is asking the question, but nobody can answer it: Who is going to win The Open Championship here at Royal Portrush? Golf, as we all know, is never an exact science and tends to leave onlookers humming and hawing like somebody dithering over which wire to cut on a ticking time bomb as they pore over a field made up of tried and tested thoroughbreds and more dark horses than Zorro’s stable.

The 148th staging of golf’s most venerated championship is, mercifully, set to explode into life today after days and days and days of unrelenting build-up and great torrents of previews, ponderings and posturings.

Given that Portrush has not staged the joust for the Claret Jug since 1951, the build up to this particular Open has been going on for years and years. Well, at least since 2014 when the R&A confirmed they would be taking their flagship back across the Irish Sea.

HeraldScotland:

Infographic by courtesy of www.golfbidder.co.uk

In those five years, of course, the unified political will which helped bring the Open to Northern Ireland has crumbled and the Stormont assembly has been in hibernation for two years. Never mix sport and politics? It’s hard not to. They’ll do their best to forget about all that this week, though.

As one Irish writer observed the other day, “when Darren Clarke steps to the tee at Royal Portrush at 6:35am and gets the Open under way, he will become the first Northern Irishman to fire a shot here and have it universally welcomed.”

Bringing the Open back to this neck of the woods has not been easy, for all manner of obvious reasons. Even as recently as February, the prospect of a closed border amid the appalling guddles and muddles of the Brexit negotiations had the R&A top brass in a fidgeting lather.

“I’ll be quite pleased when it’s over,” conceded the governing body’s chief executive, Martin Slumbers, during a press briefing back then. On the eve of the championship, however, he can’t wait for it to start.

With all the tickets gone, a crowd of around 237,750 is anticipated and will make Portrush 2019 the second highest attended Open in history after the record-busting 239,000 which burst St Andrews to its seams in 2000.

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READ MORE: Graeme McDowell savouring Portrush homecoming

As Peter Alliss, the redoubtable voice of golf who played in the Open the last time it was held here, said: “It will be mayhem, but merry, Irish mayhem, which is the best kind.”

This part of the world has known another kind of Irish mayhem that still casts a shadow. Rory McIlroy is keen to focus on the future, not a turbulent past, however.

“It’s a different time,” he said when asked about those years euphemistically known as The Troubles. “Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together. We all know that this country sometimes needs that.

“To have this championship here again I think speaks volumes about where the country is now. We’re so far past that. And that is a wonderful thing.”

Not so wonderful, meanwhile, is the weather. The rain was so prolonged and heavy yesterday, there was just about moss growing on the hosels of clubs. The highly-fancied Spaniard Jon Rahm, who has won the Irish Open twice at nearby Portstewart in 2017 and the other week at Lahinch, got to the first tee yesterday and turned back.

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READ MORE: Listen: Nick Rodger and Matt Cooper preview the Open

“I just didn’t want to get wet,” he said. Presumably, he’ll show more grit when the Open actually starts. With top-four placings in the other three majors, many are rightly tipping Rahm to make that big breakthrough here.

“If I ever have doubt, which I shouldn’t, I can always remind myself that I’ve been able to win twice in Ireland,” Rahm said. “That’s the reason I’m more than capable of winning an Open.”

The glorious, sweeping Dunluce Links will provide a robust, brutal examination. Poise and patience is demanded, driving accuracy will be at a premium while dunting the ball from tight lies to those elevated putting surfaces will call for guile, confidence and a strong nerve.

“They haven’t really had a chance to see this place with its teeth sharp, but they did today,” said Graeme McDowell yesterday as the boisterous elements replaced sunny tranquillity.

Brace yourselves, folks.