The Open May Be The Only Thing Northern Ireland Can Agree On

When Darren Clarke steps to the tee at Royal Portrush at 6:35 a.m. Thursday morning and gets the 148th Open Championship underway, he will become the first Northern Irishman to fire a shot here and have it universally welcomed.

That observation may be trite, but whistling past the graveyard is a common personality trait among those of us who grew up in Northern Ireland during what we euphemistically called ‘the Troubles.’ And Thursday will be just the latest in a series of days that once seemed so improbable as to be barely worth the dream.

August 31, 1994 was one. The Irish Republican Army announced a ceasefire, initiating a tortured, faltering process that eventually concluded its 25-year armed campaign. April 10, 1998 was another. The Good Friday Agreement was signed after a long, painful midwifery, nominally ending a conflict that claimed more than 3,000 lives and set Northern Ireland on a path toward peace. That too has been a road rife with potholes and perils, but it is at least still being traveled.

It was a period in Northern Ireland that promised to give life to the words of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel-winning poet who grew up 30 miles from Portrush:

History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

What happens on July 18 won’t have anything approaching the gravity or significance of those other dates. No graves will go unfilled and no enmities will be buried simply because the Royal & Ancient has seen fit to bring the Open to this benighted little province. But it’s another small step forward, an acknowledgement that a forlorn seaside town in Northern Ireland is just as worthy of hosting the world’s best golfers as the equally faded towns of Scotland and England.

The Open hasn’t been here since 1951, an era when there were less than 100 men in the field and most of them made their living selling sweaters in pro shops. Major sporting events tend not to visit places where there’s a fresh pall of gunsmoke.

Even in the darkest of days — and there were many, still etched on the faces of older spectators at Royal Portrush this week — the perception distorted the reality. For much of my childhood, the annual death toll from the conflict hovered around 100, a figure described with callous indifference by one British government official as “an acceptable level of violence.”

One hundred souls. That’s about two days worth of murders in the United States. The threat of violence was more pervasive than the violence itself, metasticizing into every aspect of everyday life. Even today, two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland retains a slightly sinister air, its people still able to decipher clues about the beliefs of strangers from language or utterances that seem meaningless to the untrained ear.

As divided as Northern Ireland was and is, one thing unites it: an irascible unwillingness to be looked down upon by our neighbors across the Irish Sea. For all that has been lost here, there remains a brackish pride in what little is left. Northern Ireland was not denied the Open because of the quality of its links, but because of the fractiouness of its people. That we are fractious only with each other and not outsiders counted for naught.

Royal Portrush will be a revelation. It is the equal of most courses on the Open rota, and much better than many of them. The town itself will seem comfortably familiar to those who have attended Opens anywhere else. The air carries a strong whiff of fish and chips and the threat of seagull splatter. Prime seafront real estate is given to shabby caravan parks. Dining options are limited for those who prefer their meals served on porcelain rather than in paper.

But the 148th Open isn’t like the 147 that preceded it of course. If we were at St. Andrews, folks wouldn’t fret about language or symbolism that might cause offense. If we were at Muirfield, TV analysts wouldn’t hesitate to say the course is at the mercy of bombers. If we were at Birkdale, Rickie Fowler would have packed his iconic head-to-toe orange outfit. That’s a politically potent color in these parts. Ricky Elliott, caddie to Brooks Koepka and a Portrush native, gave Fowler a heads up on that long ago.

And if Fowler did wear it? He’d be gently laughed at by people who might assault their neighbors for wearing the same. We fight amongst ourselves. The rest of you are entertainment.

Guys like Elliott, Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy know how long and unlikely the journey to Thursday has been, just how distant a pipe dream a Portrush Open was. They must also know that it won’t change things, whatever blather the tourist industry peddles. When the Open leaves town, Northern Ireland will remain what it has always been: a beautiful, troubled, misbegotten place that is too often more hostage to its past than hopeful for its future.

People here want the 148th Open to be a triumph. It will be, and not just because it exists apart from Northern Ireland’s domestic quarrels. These are people who have struggled to shoulder an unfair number of burdens over the years. Staging a wee golf tournament won’t be another of them., July 15, 2019.

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