Royal Portrush bares its teeth as Open field faces weather test

All week Royal Portrush had flashed its best pearlers, luring in the virgin visitors with its beauty and links splendour. And then, on the eve of the 148th Open, it finally provided a indication of the sharpness of its teeth.

Wind and rain sent the pros scattering on the last official day of practice, wondering if all this and more awaits in one of the most eagerly awaited first rounds in the history of the majors.

For 68 years, Northern Ireland has yearned for this Championship and, if truth be told, the locals will be happy enough to suffer some discomfort for their precious course to show its true nature. Mark down Darren Clarke as one these.

As a renowned bad-conditions player, Clarke, the 2011 champion, would want it as wretched as possible anyway, but as a resident of this seaside community and one of the most influential forces in persuading the R&A to put this Harry Colt classic back on the rota, the 50-year-old wishes it to be in its element.

Nobody wishes for storm or violent gusts bringing in the wet stuff horizontally, but Mother Nature still should make it a test. And with a forecast of showers and winds up to 25mph it should be certainly be that, particularly with a frenzied atmosphere from the off.

Rory McIlroy is due to walk out into the brunt of it – the emotion and the weather. By 10.09 a sell-out crowd – that at 237,750 for the week has been confirmed as the second largest ever for The Open – will be ready for the greatest golfer Ireland has produced. At 30 years of age, the four-time major-winner already has forged his Portrush legend, shooting a course-record 61 when he was a 16-year-old amateur. What he and the galleries would give for even a sniff of nostalgia coming to life this morning.

As it is, the gusts are set to be at their most wicked as he takes on the turn and McIlroy, no matter how much he has improved in this regard, is never at his best when the trousers and ruffling. Neither is he at his most dominant when the glare is at its most intense. McIlroy has not lifted a major title in five years and although, following his excellently consistent first six months of the season, it would hardly require a veritable Giant’s Causeway of a leap of faith to envisage him prevailing, his candidature does not impress as much as the favouritism granted to him by bookmakers suggest it does.

The world No 3 came into the media centre yesterday wisely declaring “this is far bigger than me” but his problem is that to many of the supporters it will not be. Granted, they will all strain to catch a peak of Tiger Woods’s iconhood when he eventually starts his quest for a first Claret Jug in 14 years at 3.10pm, but make no mistake, Rory is the manifestation of their hopes, dreams and ambitions. It cannot be argued that Sunday’s celebrations would be far bigger with him.

But then, cheers will also accompany Clarke and Graeme McDowell every step of the fairway. McDowell would actually be a more appropriate champion as he grew up playing at Rathmore Golf Club, the club adjacent to the Dunluce Links on land owned by their “Royal” neighbours. A working class lad raised in a house only a six-minute bike ride away – “with an advantageous wind” – McDowell sums up not only the new optimism of Portrush but of Northern Ireland as a whole. And as the tents rattled and the pitter patter increased to a drum roll, he revelled in the transforming scene.

“I feel like the guys have not had the best few days of preparation, with how calm it played Sunday, Monday, Tuesday here,” Mcilroy said. “Today is really their first look at it in a proper Portrush day, if you like. Obviously we know in links golf it’s a lot to do with the wind direction and strength and a golf course can turn upside down.

“Holes that played unbelievably short, all of a sudden play unbelievably long, strategy changes. And you’ve got to be ready for that. So I feel like my experiences here should help as this course begins to change the next few days. I think we’re going to see a stronger wind, a little bit more out of the west tomorrow. And it will test the guys.”

No doubt, luck will also play its hand and any prediction has to be weighted with the understanding that one half of the draw could easily be blown out of it by the weekend. The word on the range is that “late-early” is the place to be on the starting sheet and if that is the case that Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose stand out.

It is absurd that Koepka does not top the betting lists. His last four majors read 1-2-1-2 and one does not need Mensa membership to work out that sequence. Koepka, 29, has yet to contend in an Open, although with a sixth and a 10th in his last three Open appearances his record is only made desultory when put alongside his other major achievements.

Koepka’s caddy, Rickie Elliott, is from this town and knows this links as well as anyone. He can guide a path to glory for his employer at the same time as sticking to the overwhelming narrative of the week – it is all about Portrush.