Rory McIlroy has hailed the return of golf’s Open Championship to Northern Ireland as proof that his homeland has long moved on from the dark days of the past.
The Co Down superstar expressed hope that the tournament – the biggest sporting event the region has staged – can also contribute to the process of reconciliation two decades on from the end of the Troubles.
McIlroy spoke about the significance of the week beyond the sporting arena as he prepared to take on the world’s best at Royal Portrush Golf Club when the first competitive round begins on Thursday.
“I think no matter what happens this week, if I win or whoever else wins, having the Open back in this country is a massive thing for golf,” said McIlroy.
“And I think as well it will be a massive thing for the country.”
His comments on the final practice day came as it was confirmed that Portrush will see the largest crowd an Open has attracted outside the home of golf at St Andrews in Scotland.
The 237,750 tickets sold will make it the second highest attendance in championship history.
The Open is returning to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951, when the seaside town of Portrush on the scenic Causeway Coast also played host.
The sectarian conflict that engulfed Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, raging for three decades, made many assume the tournament would never again cross the Irish Sea.
“Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together,” said McIlroy, 30.
“We all know that this country sometimes needs that. This has the ability to do that. Talking of legacy, that could be the biggest impact this tournament has outside of sport, outside of everything else… the fact that people are coming here to enjoy it and have a good time and sort of forget everything else that sort of goes on.”
Holywood-born McIlroy, who counts an Open Claret Jug title among his four Major championship wins, reflected that his childhood in a post-Troubles era was very different to that of his parents.
“It’s amazing to think 40 years on it’s such a great place, no one cares who they are, where they’re from, what background they’re from, but you can have a great life and it doesn’t matter what side of the street you come from,” he said.
“And I think that’s what I was talking about about legacy of this tournament, to be able to have this tournament here again, I think it speaks volumes of where the country and where the people that live here are now. We’re so far past that. And that’s a wonderful thing.
“This is a wonderful thing for this country and golf in general. And to be quite a big part of it is an honour and a privilege. And I want to keep reminding myself of that, that this is bigger than me, right? This is bigger than me.”
Around 300 police officers will be on the beat in and around Portrush during the week to ensure the security of the event.
John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism NI, said bringing the Open to Northern Ireland 20 years ago would have been unthinkable.
“We’re 21 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, if someone had said in 1998 that in 20 years’ time you’re going to have the Open Championship at Royal Portrush, I don’t think anyone would have believed that,” he said.
“When I think back to when I was at university, not that long ago, just think what life was like then and what we are dealing with now – it’s just night and day.
“The fact we have got one of the world’s top sporting events coming to Northern Ireland, I think, just is indicative of how this place has changed and how people perceive the place as a safe place to come and have one of world’s largest events and have one of biggest turnouts you could ever imagine.
“We have more people from overseas than we have residents from Northern Ireland actually attending this event and I think that again demonstrates how Northern Ireland had been transformed in how it’s perceived overseas by golfers and tourists alike.”