The British Open is being held in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951The British Open is being held in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951 (AFP Photo/Paul ELLIS)
Portrush (United Kingdom) (AFP) - Rory McIlroy said on Wednesday that Northern Ireland hosting the British Open for the first time since 1951 this week "speaks volumes" for how much it has changed since The Troubles.
The 148th edition of golf's oldest major will be the biggest sporting event held in Northern Ireland, with 237,750 people expected to attend across the week.
"Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together. We all know that this country sometimes needs that," said Northern Irishman McIlroy, who was only eight years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.
"It's amazing to think 40 years on it's such a great place, no one cares who they are, where they're from, what background they're from, but you can have a great life and it doesn't matter what side of the street you come from.
"To be able to have this tournament here again, I think it speaks volumes of where the country and where the people that live here are now.
"We're so far past that. And that's a wonderful thing."
McIlroy, a four-time major champion, will draw huge crowds when the tournament gets underway on Thursday.
"I think no matter what happens this week, if I win or whoever else wins, having the Open back in this country is a massive thing for golf," the 30-year-old added.
"And I think as well it will be a massive thing for the country."
- 'We can do this' -
Former US Open champion and Portrush native Graeme McDowell has been one of the driving forces behind the return of the championship to Northern Ireland.
The 39-year-old said he, McIlroy and Darren Clarke used to joke with former R&A chief Peter Dawson about taking the British Open to Portrush, before the trio won six major titles between them to make that idea no longer a laughing matter.
"The reasons were: Infrastructure, and this and that and the other," said McDowell.
"It was the Irish Open in 2012 when we broke the European Tour attendance record. I think The R&A couldn't ignore the fact that this could be a commercial success. The jokes became very serious. It was like, 'We can do this, we can pull it off'."
McDowell, who will be playing in the tournament for the first time since 2016, believes it can have a long-lasting effect.
"If we can have a great week this week, have a successful tournament, which seems inevitable at this point, I think get the Open Championship back here in the near future, I think the spinoffs for golf in Ireland in general is huge.
"Being from this part of the world, obviously I'm biased and I'm very proud for what it's going to do for this town and this surrounding area."