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British Open returns 68 years later to a changed Northern Ireland

Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Golf

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland -- For Rory McIlroy, it's still so surreal.

The golf world has descended on Royal Portrush, a seaside course that played such a prominent role in his childhood, and this beautiful but beleaguered land -- which still bears the scars of domestic terrorism and sectarian strife -- is playing host to the British Open for the first time in 68 years.

"Portrush has been a very big, at least the golf club, has been a big part of my upbringing," McIlroy said Wednesday. "It's sort of surreal that it's here. Even driving in yesterday, when you're coming in on the road and you look to the right and you've got the second tee, I don't know who was teeing off, maybe Tony Finau and someone else, sort of strange to see them here."

This is more than a mere golf tournament, and even more than a major championship. It's a long-awaited stamp of approval for the British province looking to redefine itself and further distance itself from "The Troubles," a 30-year period of politically and religiously motivated violence.

"Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together," said McIlroy, who grew up an hour south in the Belfast neighborhood of Hollywood, and has won every major but the Masters. "We all know that this country sometimes needs that. This has the ability to do that."

The early indications are promising. According to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which oversees the tournament, the event is a sellout and is expected to draw 237,750 spectators over the course of the week, the second-largest attendance for an Open Championship outside of St. Andrews in Scotland.

 

"In previous years, I've said the big-time sport needs big-time crowds, and I think this clearly shows the Open is going from strength to strength," said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A.

Weather figures to be a factor in this place where, the saying goes, you can see all four seasons in one day. People caught a glimpse of that Wednesday, when roiling skies gave way to sideways rain, followed by spectacular sunshine. The friendly and excited disposition of the locals is unwavering.

"The people have been absolutely fantastic," said Tiger Woods, noting he's never been this far north. "They're so respectful. We used to come over here all the time and fish with the late Payne Stewart and (Mark) O'Meara and I, and we used to go fishing all around Ireland, and play golf, and enjoy coming over here and playing."

Not all the memories are good. Darren Clarke, who won the Open in 2011, grew up in Northern Ireland and narrowly escaped tragedy in 1986 while working at a bar.

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