It took nearly seven decades — far longer than Darren Clarke has been alive — but The Open has officially returned to Northern Ireland, and Clarke is the man who ushered it in.
“[R&A CEO] Mr. Slumbers asked me about three weeks ago if I would do them the honor of hitting the opening tee shot,” said Clarke earlier in the week. “And it’s Royal Portrush and when The R&A asked you, it’s a definite yes. I said I’d love it.”
Clarke hit the first tee shot before 7 a.m. local time on Thursday at Royal Portrush in the town where he has lived and at an Open he helped land for this small country. He piped it, and then he went on to birdie the first (and the third and the fifth). Clarke shot 2-under 34 on the front nine.
Not since Max Faulkner won the Claret Jug in 1951 has major championship golf been played in Northern Ireland., but this course is not one of them. It is one of the great ones, and Clarke knows it better than most. He played like it for much of the day on Thursday, too.
But regardless of how his Open ends up, whether he makes the cut or misses it, he’ll always have those 20 minutes at the first. When The Open needed a reintroduction to his homeland, and he baptized her with a birdie at Hughie’s, the first.
Clarke led an Open in Northern Ireland. What — other than a different man from Northern Ireland winning on Sunday — could be more perfect than that?