PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Rory McIlroy will certainly receive the loudest ovations during the British Open. McIlroy, a native of Northern Ireland and the fourth largest golfer in the world, has already drawn crowds of spectators to his practice rounds at Royal Portrush Golf Club, the tournament site and a course he has played since he was 10 years old.
But forget that McIlroy is the supposed favorite, because the Open returns to his golf-inspired house for the first time in almost 70 years. When the Open Thursday starts, he knows that the moment will be "bigger than me".
"To get this tournament here again, I think it speaks volumes about where the country is and where the people who live here are now," McIlroy said, referring to the three decades of bloody political turmoil euphemistically known as "the Troubles."
"We've come to that," he said, "and that's a wonderful thing."
Ian Bamford, who in 1954 1972 was the Northern Irish Amateur Open champion and a member of Royal Portrush since 1944, recently discussed the consequences of the conflict, which claimed around 3,600 lives and what it meant for the position of his beloved game in Northern Ireland.
"The unrest was terrible, the number of deaths, the number of families that were broken," said Bamford, 86. "The Open was far removed from people's minds. Golf clubs were blown up. The game itself was in danger, although the championships continued. "
Bamford watched as the Englishman Max Faulkner won the Open in 1951 when it was last held at Royal Portrush. The club gradually returned to the forefront following the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998, the reason for the uprising.
Portrush hosted the 2004 Senior British Open and the 2011 Irish Open, both critical steps. Then the Irishman Padraig Harrington won consecutive Open titles in 2007 and 2008, and Graeme McDowell, a Portrush resident, won the 2010 United States Open. In June 2014, then the R&A CEO, Peter Dawson announced the return of the championship to Northern Ireland.
McDowell, who qualified for this year's Open by sinking a 30-foot pit on the 18th hole at the Canadian Open in June, said the return to his hometown had been extremely meaningful.
"The buzz of the people this week, it has been amazing the past few days," said the 39-year-old McDowell after practicing in front of numerous supporters this week. "This should put Portrush on the world stage, and hopefully it should be great on TV this weekend."
Bamford called the Dunluce Links, the Open Course, a "masterpiece of design that is more durable than brass." Designed by Harry Colt, it opened in July 1933.
but significant changes have been made to accommodate the championship and the huge crowds that are expected to attract. Two new holes were built: the 592 yard, par 5 seventh and the daunting 434 yard, par 4 eight.
Tiger Woods, the reigning Masters champion, is looking for his fourth win at the British Open and his first since 2006. On the rugged coast of Northern Ireland he will have a job he plays for the first time have to decipher.
"It can play so many ways, depending on the wind," Woods said. "Some of the bunkers here, you wonder why the hell it is there and then it's suddenly in play."
Brooks Koepka, the four-fold big winner, may have an advantage because his caddy, Ricky Elliott, grew up in Portrush.
"Certainly a bit more confident to have him on the bag this week, knowing this course so well," said Koepka. "I don't think when he was growing up, he ever thought there would be an Open Championship here."
Elliott has already helped navigate the area after allegedly warning Rickie Fowler that his distinctive orange shirts, a nod to his days in the state of Oklahoma, could have a different meaning in Northern Ireland, where the color already represented Protestant loyalties.
McIlroy, who grew up near the capital Belfast, has the Dunluce Links record of 61, one he scored as a 16-year-old in 2005. Before that, his father treated him for his 10th birthday in a round in Royal Portrush.
"Portrush has been a very big one, at least the golf club, has been a big part of my upbringing," McIlroy said. "It is a bit surreal that it is here.