Portrush, Northern Ireland — Adam Scott already has spent seven days at Royal Portrush, three of them with Darren Clarke, and the advice was invaluable to the end. They stood off the 18th green Sunday as Scott listened intently to a British Open champion whose game was forged on these links.
How the course plays in different wind directions?
Whether it’s worth hitting driver down the steep hill on the 17th?
No, this was where to spend the next few days away from the course, with the Bushmills Distillery the leading option.
“I’ve seen enough now,” Scott said. “I feel ready.”
What he saw was better than he imagined. Royal Portrush hasn’t hosted golf’s oldest championship since 1951 and has a mystique except for the few who know it well. Clarke is on that list, having made Portrush his adopted home. Graeme McDowell is the only player who was raised in Portrush. Rory McIlroy is famous for the course record he set (61) at the North of Ireland Amateur when he was 16.
It’s not usual for Scott to show up at the Open a full week ahead of time, as he did at Carnoustie a year ago.
“I was a bit surprised, my first look, at how demanding a golf course it is,” Scott said. “Sometimes on a links you can get away with wide shots. Here, you don’t. It’s so penal off the tee, no matter what you hit. If you start spraying it, there’s going to be reloading a lot. If the wind doesn’t blow, there will be less of that. It is a very, very strong golf course.”
The strength of this Open might be the support. For the first time in 159 years of this championship, tickets for the competition days had to be purchased in advance (and since then, the same “all ticket” policy applies to Tuesday and Wednesday practice rounds). Tickets were even sold on Sunday, a rarity, and several grandstands along the back nine were filled.
The largest crowd in the morning made it clear that Tiger Woods was on site. Woods, who has not played since June 16 at the U.S. Open, arrived Sunday morning and played 18 holes with Patrick Reed.
“Where’s Tiger?” one fan asked a marshal, and he was told to find the big gallery across the way at the 17th.
Scott says Clarke gave him more than he could have wanted. He asked for a practice round, just to see how Clarke approached these links, and wound up playing three times with him.
“He’s gone out of his way to spend way too much time with me,” Scott said. “I love watching how he plays the links he grew up on, to see what he thinks and how he navigates. He’s been incredibly helpful. It’s nice to have a good level of comfort to go play the tournament.”
The advantage of playing so much so early was seeing at least three different wind directions.
“This is not the wind we will see,” Clarke said as they walked up to the 16th tee, a ferocious par 3 known as “Calamity Corner,” and the name fits. It is 236 yards on the card, with a steep drop to the right of the green that can send a golf ball 50 feet below the green unless the thick grass holds it up.
Scott hit 4-iron with a wee breeze at his back. He saw the traditional wind earlier in the week. He hit 3-wood.
Clarke introduced him to the “Bobby Lockes,” a swale to the left of the green. Into a strong wind in the 1951 Open, Locke aimed left of the green all four fourds toward a walkway into the swale, and all four times got up-and-down for par.
Clarke says he once had to smash driver when the wind was up. That begged the question: When it was blowing 40 mph in the rain, what was he doing out there?
“In my younger days, I would be playing,” he said. “Now I would be at the bar.”
Some three dozen players were playing on Sunday, some who missed the cut at the Scottish Open (Rickie Fowler, Kevin Kisner, Jimmy Walker). Others were coming over from Scotland later Sunday, or from the John Deere Classic in Illinois on Monday morning.
On this day, with a blue sky and blue Atlantic Ocean and a lovely shade of green, it was ideal.
“I haven’t played the tournament yet, so you might want to ask again later Sunday,” Scott said. “But Muirfield is my favorite Open venue, and this is right up there as far as the quality of the golf course. The other thing it has going for it is it’s spectacular. There’s more elevation. You see the ocean, the dunes. Often you come into a links, you drive in and you don’t see anything but flat. Here, it’s a spectacular course.”
Where: Royal Portrush (7,344 yards, par 71), Portrush, Northern Ireland
Television (all times EDT): Thursday-Friday, 1:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Golf Channel); Saturday, 5-7 a.m. (Golf Channel), 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (NBC); Sunday, 4-7 a.m. (Golf Channel), 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. (NBC).
Playoff (if necessary): Three holes, aggregate score
2018 winner: Francesco Molinari at Carnoustie