PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Golf’s oldest championship is all about tradition, and this is one Francesco Molinari could have done without.
Fifty-one weeks after he won the British Open and gazed at his name etched on the silver claret jug, he had to return it.
Getting it back won’t be easy.
“I’m well aware of the challenges ahead,” Molinari said Monday on the first day of official practice at Royal Portrush. “There’s a lot of guys capable this week of winning the trophy. All I can do is do my best, try to put up a good defense and be in contention on Sunday. It’s a long week ahead, so I’ll try to take it step by step.”
The first order of business was getting to know the links.
Molinari was among the 21 players who played the Irish Open in 2012 at Royal Portrush. The sharp elevation, sensational views of the limestone cliffs known as White Rocks and the Dunluce Castle in the distance, it all looked familiar. But it’s not quite the same course.
The Royal & Ancient wanted two new holes – Nos. 7 and 8 – to weave into the century-old links so that the final two holes could be used for concessions and promotional displays for more than 200,000 spectators expected this week.
The elevation is rare for links golf, especially courses in the British Open rotation, and there are fewer pot bunkers.
“We play a lot in England where it’s quite flat,” Tommy Fleetwood said. “And in front of you there’s a lot more bunkers on those links courses. These have a few more undulations and a few more blind shots. Sure, in general if you hit a good shot there’s always a bit of unpredictability on links golf. And you’re going to get good breaks and bad breaks. But definitely, poor shots are going to get punished.”
Tiger Woods was again out early, this time going 18 holes with Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson.
Just as much attention – if not more – figures to be on Rory McIlroy, playing before a home crowd in Northern Ireland on a course where he showed off his potential as a 16-year-old who set the course record at Royal Portrush with a 61 in the North of Ireland Amateur.
Walking onto the course, fans stopped to watched large video screens of McIlroy’s pure swing as a lad, the curly locks and boyish looks of the teenager who shot the 61 at Royal Portrush, and then the older version of McIlroy tapping in to win the British Open five years ago at Hoylake.
He played the Scottish Open last week, finishing in the middle of the pack, and stayed away from Royal Portrush on Monday.
The honor of the opening tee shot Thursday goes to Darren Clarke, who was raised in Dungannon but spent his formative years at Portrush, which he now calls home. The R&A chief executive asked Clarke if he would mind starting the 148th Open – and first at Royal Portrush since 1951 – and it was an easy answer.
This will be a nervous moment, and a proud one.
“As soon as he asked me, it was always going to be a yes,” Clarke said. “Will there be tears? No. I’ll just be very proud that we have it back here in Northern Ireland. It’s going to be an amazing tournament. If you see how many people were in here yesterday watching, and again today, and all the practice tickets are all sold out. The atmosphere is going to be amazing.”
Clarke had the jug for a year after his victory at Royal St. George’s in 2011, and he brought it with him to Royal Portrush for the Irish Open in 2012.
Molinari, who gets panned for being a flat-liner and loves it, didn’t do anything too wild with golf’s oldest trophy. He poured a few drinks from it but mostly kept it out of reach of his children to keep anything from happening to it.
“I was very, very careful with it, especially the first few weeks,” Molinari said. “So much so that I forgot my TrackMan on the plane not to forget the claret jug. That, obviously, had the priority.”
And now it’s back with the R&A for seven days until a new name is carved into the silver base. Not since Padraig Harrington in 2007 and 2008 has a player turned in the jug on Monday and reclaimed it six days later.
Six of them finished 11 shots or more out of the lead. One missed the cut. McIlroy was unable to play because of injury. The only one who came remotely close to defending was Jordan Spieth last year. He had a share of the 54-hole lead and then played the final round without a birdie and finished four behind.
Molinari set out Monday to get reacquainted with Royal Portrush, though one aspect remains vivid – the noise. He played the opening round of the Irish Open with Clarke. Fans lined the sides of both fairways, even in the rain.
“It was just an incredible atmosphere,” Molinari said. “I think that’s a taste of what we’re going to get this week. Everyone else in the field is looking forward to that.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.