Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell: Bringing the Claret Jug back to Northern Ireland and Portrush

Jack Rosser

On Thursday morning, at exactly 6.35am, the moment almost all of Ireland has been dreaming of for 68 years will become a reality when the Open Championship gets underway at Royal Portrush.

The course on the mystical northern coast of the island plays host to the first Open held outside of England and Scotland since 1951, when Jack Faulkner won the Claret Jug at Portrush itself.

It has been a long journey to bring the Championship back to Northern Ireland, something few would have thought imaginable given the political landscape, but golf has proved a great unifier, with Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness joining forces to help bring the 148th Championship, and two further Opens, to Royal Portrush.

The course has seen plenty of dry runs. The Irish Open in 2012 became the first regular event in the history of the European Tour to sell out after renowned club secretary Wilma Erskine had pulled everyone together to bring the tournament back north of the border for the first time in six decades.

Erskine, the politicians and the tourism boards in Ireland have all played significant parts in making this week possible, but the worldwide success of three men - who all have their own tale to tell with Portrush - offered belief to everyone that it could be a possibility.

Darren Clarke

The former Open champion, whose widely publicised and certainly well-oiled celebrations after claiming the Claret Jug in 2011 culminated at his club Royal Portrush, where he declared it the best course in the world, will have the honour of hitting the first shot of this Championship.

Darren Clarke will hit the opening tee shot on Thursday Photo: AP Photo/Peter Morrison

He may not be a native of the town, but the 50-year-old former Ryder Cup captain has made it his home since moving there in his 20s. He is a member at Portrush, where his Claret Jug is kept. Rory McIlroy first met his homeland hero on the course aged ten, while Graeme McDowell would sneak a peek over the fence of Clarke's home from the school bus to eye up the latest flash car and dream of a similar life.

The opening tee shot of The Open is usually reserved for those who, while of high standing, are predicted to have very little chance of winning that week. Clarke may be getting on, but he is a Major champion of this decade and has been dishing out advice to the great and good at Portrush over the past week. Don't count him out.

“Mr Slumbers [R&A cheif executive] asked me about three weeks ago if I would do them the honour of hitting the opening tee shot,” Clarke said of his invitation. “It’s Royal Portrush and, when the R&A ask you, it’s a definite yes. I said I’d love it.”

Graeme McDowell

Very much the hometown hero, Graeme McDowell grew up in Portrush and will perhaps have the biggest backing of any Irishman on the course this week, having only sealed his place in the field last month, to the joy of tens-of-thousands back home.

He did not grow up playing Portrush, but at the more modest Rathmore Golf Club, built on land owned by Royal Portrush with the fees for the latter just too much for a normal Irish family. At 16 McDowell was offered the chance to jump ship and represent Portrush, an offer swiftly refused. It was Rathmore where he paraded the US Open trophy after his 2010 win at Pebble Beach.

Local lad McDowell shakes hands with the fans Photo: REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

None of that, however, takes away the pride of seeing "The Open Championship evolve in the sleepy little town where I was born," as he wrote in a blog for the European Tour last week.

He is an honorary member, while brother Gary has been a green-keeper at the course for over two decades. The magnitude of this week has not been lost on the town's greatest ambassador.

"It’s hard to describe how much it means to be in the field next week," he wrote. "The excitement really started when I made that putt [to qualify] and realised I was in. I was pretty blown away by the reaction to me qualifying. There was a lot of love out there for me when it happened which is always nice to feel obviously.

"The next week I get to Pebble Beach and I am at the Past Champions dinner at the US Open and Nicklaus, Watson and Trevino all took time to come and congratulate me on making it. They had all seen the putt and were genuinely thrilled I had made it."

Rory McIlroy

The Irish boy-wonder turned global superstar is the symbol of a new Ireland, not bothered about nor inhibited by a sectarian past with which so many have struggled.

His supporters are not concerned by boarders, all of the Emerald Isle will be behind their Hollywood hero who learned much of his craft at Portrush.

He famously holds the course record, a terrific 61 shot at age 16 which had the likes of McDowell and Clarke taking notice, which will stand forever having not been beaten before a redesign ahead of this Championship.

McIlroy walks around the course during a practice round Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Also an honorary member of Royal Portrush, he is one who has previously struggled with the home favourite tag, but is ready to embrace it this week, and is well aware of what this single Championship means in his career, and life.

"I never thought I would be able to play an Open Championship at home," he told BBC Sport. "It's been 68 years since Portrush hosted the Open.

"I'm treating it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I'm going to try to make the most of it."

McIlroy may have a difficult relationship with the European Tour at the moment, declaring it a 'stepping stone' to the PGA Tour and largely turning his back on this side of the Atlantic for this season.

He has, though, done more than most for golf this side of the pond, and Ireland specifically, hosting the Irish Open for four years until this summer.

Recognition must also go to Padraig Harrington, a fine ambassador for Ireland and Irish golf and now the Ryder Cup captain for 2020.

The captain joins all three of Clarke, McDowell and McIlroy among the early starters, with the latter out latest at just past 10am, as those who lead the way in bringing golf's greatest Championship to their little corner of the world look to put on the show of their lives.