PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – The last major of the year will bring with it plenty of firsts.
Regardless of the name engraved on the claret jug a week from now, the 148th Open will not resemble the 147 that preceded it. This is an opportunity for a long and storied championship, one that has regularly weaved through a small collection of venues for decades, to write a new chapter.
Much has changed since The Open last visited the coastal links of Royal Portrush. It’s been 68 years, in fact, since Max Faulkner scooped 300 pounds for winning the tournament despite never breaking 70. But that remains the only time the oldest major in golf was held somewhere other than England or Scotland.
That is, until this week. Long viewed as one of the best courses in the world, Royal Portrush now has a chance to shine in front of a global audience like never before.
And chances are, she’s going to put on quite a show.
“It’s a wonderful, great golf course. I think it’s just an example of a great links course,” said five-time Champion Golfer of the Year Tom Watson. “If you had 20 mph wind, that golf course is all you want, but it’s ultimately fair. And the beauty of it is bar none probably the prettiest golf course over there that we play in the rotation.”
The on-course pictures from the biggest names in the game have already begun to trickle in, and they’re sure to pick up speed in the next three days. Part of that is assuredly savoring the scenic vistas, but it’s also rooted in the notion that many of today’s top players simply haven’t laid eyes on the sprawling, undulating Dunluce Links layout. It’s been seven years since a professional event was last held here, the 2012 Irish Open, won by Jamie Donaldson. The course has been altered since, with two new holes added from the adjacent Valley course in advance of this week’s major test.
But even as recently as last month, players ranging from Tiger Woods to Paul Casey admitted that they had never seen the course, with or without the two new holes, let alone in Open conditions. This week the quickest study might move to the head of the class.
Of course, this is also the first time that The Open, typically followed by the PGA Championship, has held the anchor leg among golf’s four biggest events. This now represents the last chance for major hardware for the next nine months.
“I think it’s only right for the Open Championship to be the last major of the year,” said Jon Rahm. “The oldest and most traditional, for a European, arguably the most important one. I think it’s right that the claret jug should be the last major and at the end of the year.”
But this week’s venture into territory not seen since the Truman administration is as much about the destination as it is the championship. The tiny, golf-crazed town of Portrush, barely 7,000 strong when all the heads are counted, has been brimming with anticipation since this date was put on the calendar by the R&A five years ago. The host area often becomes enveloped in the storyline of The Open itself, but even more so this week after a 68-year wait.
“The town is ready, the bars are ready, the people are,” said 2011 winner and local resident Darren Clarke. “It’s going to be a huge celebration of a week. And I think the guys are going to absolutely love it because a lot of them will never have played there before. This is new for a lot of them, so I think they’ll all really, really enjoy it.”
Clarke will be seen as a de facto host this week, with the championship returning to his native country eight years after his stirring victory at Royal St. George’s. So, too, will Portrush native Graeme McDowell, whose previous trips around the two courses here number into the hundreds. And this is where Rory McIlroy made his first splash, as a 16-year-old, shooting a 61 that still stands as the course record.
Defending Open champ Francesco Molinari played with Clarke in the 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush, when Clarke was still in possession of the claret jug, and it remains a strong memory for the Italian who lifted the same trophy last summer at Carnoustie.
“I’m sure it’s going to be an amazing atmosphere,” Molinari said. “It was something I still remember, so I can only imagine what The Open is going to be. It is going to be even bigger, obviously, going back to Northern Ireland after so many years. Defending is always special, but defending in a place where the tournament has not been for so long I’m sure is going to be extra special.”
There will be no shortage of superlatives this week, as the oldest championship in the sport reconnects with the least-known course in its rota. For spectators attending on site and viewers taking stock from across the Atlantic and around the world, it’s sure to be a memorable introduction.
But for the 156 participants, the challenge is clear: turn novelty into familiarity as quickly as possible, or risk being among the first to bow out of the year's final major.