Dan Davies writes from Royal Portrush after Shane Lowry's maiden Major win

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Why Shane Lowry Wasn’t The Only Winner At Portrush This Week

Shane Lowry happily admitted he’d been ‘shaking’ on the first tee all week, not that you would have been able to tell from the way he played. ‘I was so nervous, so scared,’ said the Open champion after accepting the famous trophy. He confessed that he’d struggled to perform in front of a home crowd in the past, but not this week. And this was most definitely a ‘home’ victory.

Darren Clarke described being unprepared for how he’d felt as he stepped up to strike the first shot of the tournament, while Graeme McDowell said there had been tears in his eyes when he’d played his. Rory McIlroy insisted the Open wasn’t about him — and it really wasn’t, although it did leave him teary-eyed when his heroic bid to make up for his first day meltdown came up one shot short.

The Open’s return to Northern Ireland after a wait of 68 years has been a resounding success. ‘Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together,’ said McIlroy the day before the tournament began. ‘We all know that this country sometimes needs that.’

When asked about what this Open’s legacy might be, McIlroy had instinctively looked beyond golf. ‘The biggest impact this tournament has outside of sport, outside of everything else, is 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.’

It was about ‘how far our country has come, how far it’s moving forward’, said Clarke, who has been a leading figure in the campaign to bring the event back to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951.

‘The economic benefits of what this tournament is going to bring, not just this week, but the legacy going forward, what it is going to bring to the country…’ Clarke’s words tailed off and he smiled, just as he had been doing all the way round the course on Thursday as the cheers rang in his ears.

‘Go back and take a look at some of the pictures 20 years ago,’ he said. ‘We wouldn’t be standing having this conversation. And you’d go down the street, maybe not here, but you’d see police everywhere, you’d see Army everywhere. You don’t see that anymore. We’re very proud of our country.’

After finishing his round on Saturday, McDowell had more to say. ‘Without getting into politics or religion, because that’s not a good thing to get into around here, it’s symbolic — it’s a shift. It’s a move on. It’s a step from our past. It shows how many hurdles we’ve overcome, how far we’ve come as an island, really.

‘It’s history and everything that’s gone on,’ he continued, ‘but it’s more about the present and really where Ireland can go, north and south. And hopefully we’re one place in the future.’ Politicians from both sides in Northern Ireland visited Royal Portrush to experience an atmosphere that suggested anything might indeed be possible when the current of goodwill flows as strongly as it did here.

And it’s not as if it hasn’t flowed before. Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party, who at the time was the Northern Ireland Executive’s Minister for Enterprise and Investment, and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness, who was its Deputy First Minister, were both quick to recognise the potential long-term benefits of the plan hatched at Royal Portrush by Wilma Erskine, the club’s dynamic and long-serving secretary, and supported by prominent members such as John Bamber and Philip Tweedie.

Peter Dawson, who was the Chief Executive of the R&A at the time, was initially sceptical about whether the Open could return. The commitment of Northern Ireland’s political leaders was a factor in changing his mind, as was the positive feedback Dawson received about how the club and the course coped with hosting 2012 Irish Open — the first time the tournament had come to the province since 1947.

The R&A’s ‘secret shoppers’, as Erskine describes them, liked what they saw, and Dawson was sufficiently impressed for the talks to become more serious. When the club agreed to change the course with the addition of two new holes, and to build a tunnel to ease the flow of spectators and players around the links, a possibility was transformed into an inevitable, which duly became a reality.

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On the eve of the tournament, Martin Slumbers, Peter Dawson’s successor at the R&A, explained there were many people who have made this possible. He went on to list the politicians, Northern Ireland’s tourist board and the club members who had put up with the imposition of the changes required to make the Open a possibility.

‘Yes, we’re going to celebrate the fact that we’ve had some fantastic Irish golfers in the last few years,’ Slumbers explained. ‘But this championship will be watched in 600 million households over the coming days, all around the world. And that profile will bring into households this course, which many people have never heard of, and this beautiful landscape.’

He was right about the Irish golfers being celebrated, although the romantics lamented the early departures of McIlroy and Clarke, both of whom made triple-bogeys on the 18th hole. Those same romantics were at least able to enjoy the continuing resurgence of McDowell, who was schooled at the neighbouring Rathmore Golf Club, whose course had been temporarily given over for the practice ground for the Open.

The many first-time visitors to Portrush among the 237,750 people who attended will have seen how local heroes are embraced in these parts. The town’s pubs and restaurants all seem to have on their walls signed photographs of McDowell with his US Open trophy, Clarke with his claret jug, and McIlroy with his various major trophies.

Northern Ireland’s stellar trio accelerated to fame and glory in the slipstream created by a southerner, Padraig Harrington. Lowry was another he inspired, and Harrington and McDowell were both waiting to greet the new champion at the back of the 72nd green.

At his press conference, the champion golfer of the Year paid tribute to Harrington as the man who ‘paved the way’ for this generation of Irish golfers.

Before this week, few had seriously considered that it might be another Irish golfer from the south who would create possibly the greatest storyline this historic Open could have come up with. Shane Lowry’s victory was achieved on an irresistible tide of support that crested the dunes and engulfed the links of the Dunluce in a way that not even the torrential rain could manage. As McDowell had explained earlier in the week, ‘golf has always united this country’.

As Lowry broke through the crowds and walked to the 18th green, Irish tricolours snapped in the wind, and choruses of ‘Ole, ole, ole’ filled the arena. It seemed fitting given the spirit of the event that carrying the man from County Offaly’s bag was a Northern Irishman, Brian ‘Bo’ Martin, who hails from Ardglass.

Two years on from Stormont’s collapse and amid a growing disillusionment with politics in Northern Ireland, the Unionist MPs Ian Paisley Jnr and Gregory Campbell must have been served the same food for thought at the Open as Sinn Fein’s leader Michelle O’Neill and Raymond McCartney, a republican politician who joined the Provisional IRA after seeing his cousin killed on Bloody Sunday.

The power-sharing established by the Good Friday Agreement is still in limbo. In February last year, a breakthrough looked likely until a deal foundered on the same intransigence that ensured The Troubles lasted as long as they did.

The good news is that talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP are said to be more positive than they have been for some time, and the experience of this Open can only have helped.

‘Look, the Open is not going to solve anything but there is a feel good factor and so much good will and optimism,’ commented Deric Henderson, the award-winning journalist and author who covered The Troubles in his role as Ireland Editor for the Press Association.

Henderson, a member of Royal Portrush, served as a media consultant for the Championship Committee and has seen enough in his 45-year career to understand that golf transcends politics and sectarianism. He also recognises that one of the biggest challenges now will be ensuring the warm afterglow created by the Open’s return to Antrim is one that lasts.

‘Monday morning, we’ll all have a hangover,’ he said. ‘They’ll start dismantling the grandstands but we’ve got to build for the future.’

The Open will be back at Portrush, that much is sure. It is to be hoped that the politicians take note of what happened here this week. More importantly, the fine people of Ireland – the whole island — should not have to wait so long to again experience the spirit, the sense of shared pride, purpose and joy, that made the 148th Open Championship so very special.

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