By Phil Rice
After a break of 68 years the British Open returns to Irish shores at the much-vaunted fairways of Royal Portrush, this week.
Four Irish players have won major championships in the past 12 years and their success, in addition to the phenomenal success of the Irish Open at Portrush in 2012, encouraged the R&A to re-visit Northern Ireland.
That event in 2012 was attended by a record crowd for a European Tour event and the golf mad Irish supporters are expected to flock to the magnificent links course in County Antrim this week.
Of course, Portrush was the training ground for three of those major champions, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke.
It would be no surprise if an Irishman features at the upper reaches of the leaderboard during this week.
McIlroy is currently ranked number three in the World Rankings and despite not performing at his best in the three majors to date this year, he can be expected to be highly motivated in front of his adoring fans this week.
He will certainly not lack for support and this may well be his best opportunity to end his draught of major wins, during the past five years.
He has been accused of trying too hard in the majors and putting too much pressure on himself. This may well have been the case, particularly at Augusta where The Masters is still the only major he hasn’t won.
He admits that links golf doesn’t really suit his style of play, with his high ball flight, in what are traditionally windy conditions.
However, the wind is not expected to be a major factor this week and the last time that occurred at an Open was in 2014 at Hoylake when Rory lifted the Claret Jug, in benign conditions.
The Royal Portrush club have spent over £1m in preparing the course over the past two years in readiness for this momentous week.
Visiting the course two weeks ago McIlroy said: “It is clearly a different course to the one I grew up playing, it’s longer, it’s tougher but it’s magnificent.
“There are a lot of people who can be very proud of themselves in persuading the R & A to bring the Open to the club and also in preparing the course so superbly.”
Links golf requires different skills to those used week in week out on the PGA tour in the States.
Many fine golfers have buried their chances in the deep fescue grass that borders the narrow fairways of traditional British Open courses.
The European players have more experience of these conditions and that has helped them to considerable success during the past 25 years.
Francesco Molinari triumphed last year at Carnoustie and may well be a factor again this year.
His straight driving and accurate iron play are essential ingredients for a potential winner, but his success will also depend on whether his putting form of last year is replicated.
McDowell would dearly love to reproduce the form that won him his US Open triumph in 2009.
Victory at his home course on the fairways where he spent much of his youth would be the icing on his career.
His form of late has not been good however, having missed the cut at both the Irish and Scottish Opens. But the crowd will be right behind him and they may inspire him to something special.
Another Irishman who may well be in contention this week is Shane Lowry. The 32-year-old is reaching his prime as a golfer and has shown some of his best form during this year.
He believes his victory in the Abu Dhabi Championship has given him the belief he needed to go on to win his first major.
He visited the course two weeks ago and apart from being impressed with the outstanding condition of Royal Portrush, he felt very comfortable on the course and is optimistic of a big showing this week.
This will be one of the biggest sporting occasions in the history of Northern Ireland. They couldn’t have prepared better for the occasion and no doubt it will be a memorable week, particularly for the man holding the claret jug aloft on Sunday evening.