Within seconds of landing at Belfast City Airport, you are surrounded by slogans. ‘Tee-up for major celebrations’, blares a pink pun on a glorious green golf backdrop.
In case anyone getting off the plane hadn’t noticed, The Open will be played in Northern Ireland – and more specifically Royal Portrush – next season, for the first time since 1951. And about time too – as you will see, it's glorious.
So much so, you do wonder if all the fanfare is at the airport is even necessary now: the event is already a 192,000 sell out (the quickest in Open history) and it is due to be the biggest ever sporting event in Northern Ireland.
Plus, how hard can it be to promote an area that boasts the Giants Causeway, Belfast Titanic, Bushmills Distillery and was voted the number 1 place to visit in 2018 by the Lonely Planet?
Then you realise it’s not about selling Northern Ireland, it’s about making the most of the opportunity that has finally arisen. And, in the land where Game of Thrones is filmed, that is also true of one local hero on a quest to claim a crown he believes is rightfully his. For Jon Snow, read Rory McIlroy.
But what awaits the returning hero?
Course for concern?
Royal Portrush is just a short trip from Holywood, where McIlroy grew up and honed his game from the age of seven, and a short drive from both Castlerock (no, not Casterly Rock, GoT nerds!) and Portstewart (host of the Irish Open), three courses which I luckily found myself playing, along with a group of fellow journalists, in early October.
McIlroy even holds the course record, shooting a 61 in 2005, aged 16 (check out these flared white trousers below).
So, surely, there is nothing to fear for him? Well, McIlroy appears to be taking no chances.
The 29-year-old, whose knowledge of the course may be second only to Darren Clarke, who is fortunate enough to claim the club as his home links, was even pictured was playing a round just a day after capturing the Ryder Cup for Europe at Le Golf National.
You see, it is not just that the rough is remorseless. That is nothing out of the ordinary for links golf – despite Portrush greedily gobbling up balls on seemingly every occasion I erred off line.
No, there are other dangers lurking around the course, which has been remodelled over the past couple of years, with the 2019 Open in mind. Let's go through a few of the key challenges.
Calamity (at every) Corner?
Perhaps the most striking is the early possibility of sending your ball hurtling over a sheer drop into the Atlantic Ocean on the 5th hole (White Rocks – 411 yards). The majority of the fairway is obscured from the tee and you also face the dilemma of how much of the dog leg to try and cut off to ease your approach to the green, with the wind a huge factor.
The green finishes just yards from the cliff and a thinned iron will see the ocean rub salt into any pre-existing wounds.
Then come the two new holes – 7 and 8, which replace the 17th and 18th that would have been perhaps too facile for the likes of McIlroy next year. Indeed it seems Curran Point – a 590-yard behemoth – was perhaps designed to test even the biggest hitters.
Not only does it feature a new version of the famed ‘Big Nellie’ bunker (previously on the old 17th) on the right to intimidate you as you take aim with a drive, the second shot is perhaps even more difficult, with those wanting a shorter iron or wedge to the green having to be incredibly precise as the fairway narrows at just the point you wish it wouldn’t.
After falling just short of Big Nellie with my drive, never have I felt like more of a hacker.
Royal Portrush - general view
Image credit: Other Agency
On hole 8 – Dunluce – the drive is crucial with those favouring a draw in better shape as it curves from right to left. The yardage guide simply says ‘left should be avoided at all costs’. It's not out of bounds, you see, but if you land there, even if you find your ball, you’d probably rather you hadn’t. The depth and slope of the rough is prodigious.
It is around this time you realise you are playing a truly special course – even if it has already started ruining any semblance of morale you had, and utterly messed with your mind.
The ocean, the dunes, the carpet-like fairways, are a heady cocktail, with each hole it’s own unique test, which can often be played in a variety of ways. Speaking of which, another by-product of the re-jig is that Calamity Corner – often touted as one of the hardest holes in golf, and probably the most famous hole on the course, is now stationed at No 16, precisely the place to destroy some Open dreams in dramatic fashion.
An uphill, 236-yard par 3, during which you must contend with the wind and a 75-foot drop into a deep, yawning chasm full of rough, is as tough as they come.
Royal Portrush - hole 16, Calamity Corner
Image credit: Other Agency
Indeed, it is holes like these – new challenges and old for McIlroy – that make this such a sublime round of golf and, even if you know you have met your match, impossible not to enjoy on some level.
'One of my favourite courses in the world'
It is not surprising McIlroy has described it as ‘one of my favourite courses in the world’ and the area, which boasts roughly a quarter of the worlds links courses, as simply 'made for golf'.
It is also no shock that only two golfers managed to break 70 the last time the Open was held here. But can he, in what could be his only chance to win the Open on home soil, under scrutiny like no other Northern Irish golfer has even been under, reclaim the throne he last sat on in 2014?
Image credit: Other Agency
What is not in doubt is that Portrush – and the surrounding area – has been teed up for a major celebration in the best way possible. And now, it’s over to you, Rory.