They’ve been waiting for this in Northern Ireland for 68 years and, as Steve Carroll discovers, now the Open has arrived, Royal Portrush is loving it

The crowds are six or seven deep just off the fairways but they’re queued up by the roadside as well. It’s only when you arrive at Royal Portrush, traversing the single lane carriageway that leads towards the tiny town centre, that it dawns just how much the golf course dominates the community – and how important it is that the Open has finally returned.

This is a championship that’s been sold out for months.

For those not lucky enough to have a ticket – and not willing to shell out £400 on resale sites – extreme measures are needed to catch a glimpse.

Inside the course are the massive numbers that only St Andrews can rival. Outside, though, they are on their bikes, on foot, and with their dogs, separated by a temporary fence that would probably provide little protection should any decide to take a really closer look.

There’s an Open logo hanging from nearly every lamppost – the inevitable commercial branding that declares an event to be the best ever – but there’s something very old school about this week. Portrush has been sent back in time.

Yes, the railway station is as modern as you can get, the result of millions of pounds of brushing up, and the shop fronts have had the sort of makeover that would bring a smile to Gok Wan’s face.

Even so, there’s still the heavy whiff of nostalgia.

Remember when the FA Cup was something more than an early evening sideshow for the Premier League? It had the power to grip an entire area.

If you’re part of the generation that’s grown up without Grandstand and dawn-till-dusk coverage, you won’t remember the glorious fever of one-upmanship, where businesses would compete with each other to come up with the most supportive – and for that read outrageous – displays.

In windows and doorways would be big silver-foil trophies, good luck messages, shirts and scarves. Occasionally, a framed autographed picture of the star striker or bruising centre-half would take pride of place like sacraments on an altar.

Royal Portrush

These were the 80s equivalent of the gaudy Christmas light shows that now make the average semi visible from space. Open fever has revived these heady days.

Ground zero at Portrush is Morelli’s ice cream parlour. If you could sum up this week in six words it would be ‘20 kilograms of ice cream sprinkles’.

Who even wants to think about how many hours it took to produce the wall-long mosaic of defending champion Francesco Molinari that’s brought even Adam Scott flocking for a peek. It’s the passion it symbolises that’s important.

This is my eighth Open and my seventh different host. None have felt like this.

Carnoustie didn’t have its special red Post Box, replete with silhouette of (presumably) Rory hitting to some distant fairway down the street.

The practice days weren’t packed with crowds so busy you’d think the Open had kicked off on Monday.

These were crowds that stayed in place even when the heavens parted and god tried to make those Portrush fairways even greener ready for Darren Clarke’s opening tee shot this morning.

They were crowds that were out in mesmerising, unprecedented, numbers when the 2011 champion took to the tee at 6.35am.

The grandstand was ready to pop like a cork, filled to the brim with 700 souls. Hundreds more stretched down both sides of the fairway. Was this the Open or the Ryder Cup?

It was a scene no one present had witnessed before. For the home grown players, bolstered by the goodwill of an entire country, given fortitude by the messages of support bolted onto the side of buildings, or the banners lining the route to the course, this is much, much bigger than Europe vs. America.

For they are not only playing for their country. In the case of Clarke, McDowell and McIlroy, they are representing the very communities from where they grew up.

Royal Portrush

So you can imagine how inspired Clarke was, as he raced to such a fast start amid this adoring gaze, and you can sympathise with McIlroy, whose anxious iron at the 1st hole ended his championship hopes before they ever began.

Quite simply, this is the biggest sporting event that Northern Ireland will ever stage. And everyone inside and outside the ropes, and everyone around the entire County Antrim area, knows it.

6pm is the Witching Hour at an Open. If you want to find a queue, it’s usually the one for the buses.

But the massive curved grandstand at 18 is full. And so is the 12th, and the three that surround the par 3 13th. No one is leaving.

It’s been a long time coming for Royal Portrush. It’s 68 years since Max Faulkner and whether they are on the course, or lining the pavements looking in, every one is loving it.

What a three days we have in store.

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