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Ready for a Royal good time in Portrush ahead of the Irish Open

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Graeme McDowell

They don’t sing on the golf course -- certainly not during the Irish Open anyway -- so Roy Keane will have nothing to worry about if he crosses the border and heads for Portrush this week.

He’d enjoy it too I suspect if he did travel north. And even though the event is a sell-out, I imagine some of my good friends in the Northern Ireland Tourist Board would find him a ticket.

Those of the 100,000-plus golf fans with tickets already secured -- this is the first ever sell-out for a regular European Open event -- will definitely like the first Irish Open at Royal Portrush since 1947 and the first in the North since 1953.

What’s not to like about it?  When you enter the seaside resort of Portrush, from either the Belfast side or the Derry side depending on your route or your political persuasion, you leave your passport behind you.

They may adorn their clubhouse with a portrait of their Queen -- she too is around the place in Ulster this week -- and some of the roadside pavements en route may be red, white and blue, but the welcome for golfers and golf fans of every hue is definitely of the hundred thousand welcomes order.

I know this from personal experience. On more than one occasion -- two to be precise -- I have been lucky enough to play the great links that will host players who might actually do it justice this weekend.

I’ve stood on the tee-box of the 200-yard monster that is simply called Calamity.

I have looked down from the fifth green and marveled at the wonderful beach below, just as Padraig Harrington and U.S. major winner Keegan Bradley did during their practice round on Tuesday.

I have hit a drive towards the monstrous dune that guards the fairway on the 17th hole where the Rathmore clubhouse that first welcomed Graeme McDowell as a young boy serves as your line.

I have looked at Fred Daly’s Open medal in the trophy cabinet, marveled at the history of this great course, and been truly grateful for the chance to play it.

All of which is nice, none of which is relevant to the argument which suggests that this is a momentous week for Irish sport, a week when we can forget about the failings of the soccer team in Poland and the rugby team in New Zealand.

The next few days are huge for Ireland and the Irish, whether we all know it or not, because the next few days will prove that we have matured as a people.

Just last weekend the former Northern Ireland soccer team captain Alan McDonald collapsed and died, on a golf course of all places.

On Monday, Irish goalkeeper Shay Given was good enough to take time off from his summer holidays to pay his own respects to fan James Nolan, the 21-year-old who fell into a river in the Polish town of Bydgozsc and died during Euro 2012.

Those deaths were mourned on both sides of the Irish border. McDonald -- and I met him more than once -- was a quietly spoken gentleman without a bad bone in his body.

James Nolan was, by all accounts, a young man starting out in life with a smile on his face and passion for soccer and the Irish team burning in his heart.

Their deaths reminded us that life is for the living, that we are here for a good time and not a long time as my sister-in-law always says.

Their deaths also reminded us that sport knows no borders.  McDonald’s coffin draped in the green of Northern Ireland soccer will be just as emotional a sight as Nolan’s was in the green, white and orange of Trap’s Army last Monday morning.

The same flags and many others will fly above the clubhouse at Royal Portrush this week and this weekend, simply because the European Tour always fly the flags of the nations represented in their tournaments.
In truth there is no need for any flag on the North Antrim coast this weekend.

Years after Bill Clinton walked among us with his message of peace, Irish sport is again celebrating human unity without any political interference.

Darren Clarke comes from a very different side of the tracks to Harrington. McDowell’s upbringing was very different to Paul McGinley’s, but none of that has ever mattered in golf.

Youngsters with a love of golf in Ireland have always played under a 32 county umbrella organization. The Golfing Union of Ireland has never engaged in politics and never will.

When McDowell and Harrington and Clarke and young Rory McIlroy won majors they won them for all of Ireland – and all of Ireland celebrated with them.

This week, on one of the great golf courses in the world, the game gets the chance to say thank you in return.

It will be special and it will be magical. It will also be windy, which is why I wouldn’t put any money on Keegan Bradley to win his first Irish Open on his first exposure to Irish links golf.

Keegan – someone is bound to call him Bradley Keegan this week – will hardly object.

He’s already been to the Giants Causeway and to the Bushmills distillery since he landed in Belfast Airport on a flight from New York on Monday morning.

The jet lag will have worn out by the time he stands on the first tee for Thursday’s opening round, but the memories of his first real golfing trip to Ireland will never wear out.

That’s how good Royal Portrush is.

(Cathal Dervan is sports editor of the Irish Sun in Dublin)

Keane Still Has Heart
There are still people out there who would hang, draw and quarter Robbie Keane given half the chance.
The European Championships – Portugal’s Ronaldo had more shots on target than the entire Irish team – certainly did little to enhance his reputation.

The suggestion that Robbie could retire from international duty now post-Poland and enjoy his time in the Los Angeles Sun probably has merit.

But those who knock Robbie just for the sake of it may well have got a little kick in the teeth when they woke up on Sunday morning.

As we slept back here in Ireland, Robbie was returning to normal service with the LA Galaxy during an MLS game against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

When we awoke, we awoke to news that Robbie had found his scoring touch again in the less demanding confines of American football, but that was only half the story.

After his goal, in an easy 3-0 win for the Galaxy far away, Robbie ran to the LA bench and grabbed a team shirt.

He immediately held it up to the cameras with the message “RIP James Nolan” on the back, his own tribute to the Irish fan who died in Poland last week in a tragic drowning.

Nolan was only 21 when he left home to cheer on Robbie and the team at the Euros.

On Monday, with Robbie’s wife Claudine in the Dublin church, they played “The Fields of Athenry” as James’ coffin left the church.

Across the Atlantic, Robbie’s gesture said as much.

His touch may be deserting him but he is still, as I have always suggested, a decent bloke, a worthy Irish captain and our greatest goal scorer ever.

When he does hang up those boots, we might finally realize that. All of us.

HEROES OF THE WEEK
THE amateur hurlers of Tipperary and Cork and the footballers of Down and Monaghan served up two absolute treats last Sunday afternoon. Tipp defeated Cork by just a point in the Munster hurling semifinal, while Down came back from a nine point deficit to beat Monaghan in the very last minute in their football encounter in Armagh. Both games were brilliant to watch -- and both proved you don’t need to play sportsmen hundreds of thousands of dollars a week to be entertained.

IDIOTS OF THE WEEK
SORRY about this, but the Irish rugby team and their management deserve to be slated for their abject failure to live with the All-Blacks in Hamilton last Saturday. Losing 60-0 to any team, even if they are the world champions, is not good enough for any side wearing the green of Ireland. Questions need to be asked by the IRFU – and answered. Someone really should pay the price for a defeat described by captain Brian O’Driscoll as “embarrassing.” He was right on that score – about the only score Ireland got on the day.

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