Well, that was quite the day. The zealous masses had stampeded through the entry gates here at Royal Portrush in the kind of rampaging scenes you would see on an Attenborough documentary about the migration of wildebeest on the Serengeti as Northern Ireland sent its golfing heroes on their way in the 148th Open Championship.

Darren Clarke was roared off the first tee at 6.35am amid an emotional cacophony while the patriotic hordes bellowed their lungs dry as Graeme McDowell welled up and clattered away after a great din of expectant exaltation.

And then came Rory … and it all went hideously wrong. The Dunluce links has a 16th hole called Calamity and a 17th called Purgatory but McIlroy got a grim, bitter taste of both of those things at the very first hole as he racked up a quadruple bogey eight during an engrossingly appalling spectacle which really should have taken place behind a police cordon.

While JB Holmes finished at the head of the leaderboard after a 66, and Scotland’s delightfully composed Robert MacIntyre planted a saltire in the upper echelons with a 68, McIlroy’s excruciating, demoralising eight-over 79 obliterated his hopes of ending his five year major drought.


It was one of the biggest deflations since the Belfast Balloon and Airship Club ran out of propane cylinders at its anniversary fete. As a 16-year-old, McIlroy zipped round here in a course record 61. Yesterday, as he flung his tee-shot out of bounds and then had to take a drop from a bush during a prolonged, pitiful palaver, folk were thinking he would be happy with 61 to the turn.

Having leaked another shot on the third, a shell-shocked McIlroy rallied with a brace of birdies before the turn but a lazy, “inexcusable” four-putt double-bogey on the 16th was followed by a ghastly triple-bogey on the last. The postmortem could begin.

“It almost settled me down,” suggested McIlroy of that shuddering eight on the first. “I mean that was sort of the worst that could happen, so you put your head down and keep going. I felt I showed some good resilience after that and then I undid all that great work on the last few holes.”

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While 50-year-old Clarke was rolling back the years – he was three-under after five and leading before settling for a 71 – McIlroy was rolling his eyes in despair.

McDowell too had cause for considerable consternation. Three-under with just five to play, the home town hero endured a desperate denouement and shipped five shots in his last four holes in a 73.

On the last, the search for his lost ball lasted the newly allotted three minutes – it was five before – and they found it a mere 12 seconds after the limit. That led to a forlorn triple bogey seven.

“I thought it was a hell of a [good]rule until about 12 minutes ago,” said McDowell with a rueful grin in the immediate aftermath of his torrid finale.

There hadn’t been many home comforts for McDowell or McIlroy. It was left to Shane Lowry to lift the Irish morale with a 67 which left him one shot off the lead. Lowry’s own spirits had been raised by a trip to the Bushmills Inn for a pep talk with Neil Manchip, his Edinburgh-born coach.

No alcoholic beverages had been taken, mind you. Well, so Lowry said.

“Practice hadn’t gone well so Neil and I went for coffee at the Bushmills Inn, we found a quiet little room and had a great chat for 40 minutes,” he said. “I left the room full of confidence and ready to go.”

Lowry was out on his own until Holmes eased in quietly with a 66. A bogey on his first hole was swiftly repaired by a telling thrust of three birdies in his next four holes as the 37-year-old took over as the frontrunner.


Holmes was very much the forgotten man of the 2016 Open at Troon. He was third, but a whopping 13 shots behind runner-up Phil Mickelson who himself ended up a further three behind Henrik Stenson after that unforgettable head-to-head between the pair.

“That was a great week [at Troon],” he reflected. “Those two guys got hot that week but besides them, I pretty much beat the field. That’s definitely a boost for me.”

Behind Holmes and Lowry there was a quite fearsome logjam of players on 68 which included the likes of Sergio Garcia, Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, and US PGA winner Brooks Koepka.

MacIntyre was in there too while New Zealander Ryan Fox barged his way into the record books with a sizzling inward half which just about left scorch marks on the Portrush turf.

Out in 39, Fox hit six birdies in his last seven holes to roar home in 29, the lowest back nine in Open history. McIlroy could do with a run like that.