Newsday (N.Y.): J.B. Holmes leads historic British Open at Royal Portrush

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — The opening round of an historic British Open began in the early morning Thursday with an emotional tee shot by Darren Clarke and finished in the early evening with J.B. Holmes in the lead by a stroke.

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Copyright © 2019 Newsday. All rights reserved. 


At Portrush, Rory returns to his roots and memories

By Art Spander

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — So little has changed, on the course at least where, despite a remodeling and some new bunkers, it all seemed familiar to Rory McIlroy. Then again, so much has changed.

McIlroy is a star now, a home country hero, a major golf champion. Then again, he still he remains the kid from next door — or, more literally, 60 miles away — returning to his roots and his records. 

A British Open in Northern Ireland, which once seemed unlikely. A British Open, the 148th Open Championship, at Royal Portrush, which you might say like the nation itself, ripped apart by sectarian fighting known as the Troubles, has undergone restoration.

Three golfing greats emerged from the region, three major champs who directly or indirectly helped bring back the Open, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and McIlroy. 

There will be pressure for each, when play begins Thursday, so many expectations. So much attention. Friends and family almost everywhere. There will be pleasure for each. If it’s not once in a lifetime, and who knows when the Open will return to Portrush, it’s distinctive.

“Portrush has been a very big — at least the golf club has been — a very big part of my upbringing,” said McIlroy. “It’s sort of surreal.”

He was born and raised in Holywood (pronounced Hollywood, like the movie city), a suburb of Belfast about an hour’s drive south of Portrush.

“I think my history maybe isn’t quite as long here at Portrush than, say Darren or G-Mac (McDowell), but my first memories are coming up here to watch my dad play in the North of Ireland (golf championship).

“I remember chipping and putting, being 7 or 8, my dad playing. My summer, and I got to the stage where I was playing North of Ireland ... My dad brought me to Portrush for my 10th birthday to play, which was my birthday present. I actually met Darren Clarke for the first time, which was really cool.”

McIlroy is 30 now, Clarke 50.

“It shows you what we’ve done in terms of players,” said McIlroy of the Northern Irish. “G-Mac winning the U.S. Open, Darren the Open and some of the success I’ve had.” Some!? McIlroy has won the U.S. Open, the British Open and (twice) the PGA Championship.

“And how Northern Ireland has come on as a country and that we’re able to host such a big event again.”

The only other time was 1951. Plans for a subsequent Open were shelved because of the violence among the Catholic minority and Protestant, government-supported majority that wanted to keep Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, as opposed to uniting it with the Republic of Ireland.

The fighting, responsible for the deaths of 3,500, lased from the 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. McIlroy was born in 1989.

“Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together,” said McIlroy. “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 is the fact that people are coming here to enjoy it and have a good time and sort of forget everything else that goes on.”

Including the tragedy of the Troubles. 

“I just think it just means people have moved on,” said McIlroy. ”It’s a different time. It’s a prosperous time. I was very fortunate. I grew up outside Belfast and never saw anything. I was oblivious to it. 

“I watched a movie a couple of years ago called ’71, about a British soldier stationed at the Palace Barracks in Holywood, which is literally 500 yards from where I grew up. I remember asking my mom and dad, ‘Is this actually what happened?’ It’s amazing 40 years on it’s such a great place. No one cares who they are, where they’re from, their background. You can have a great time, and it doesn’t matter what side of the street you come from.”

The next few days, all that will matter is that the Open is back at Portrush.


After ‘the Troubles,’ an Open returns to Portrush

By Art Spander

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — A wonderful golf course. Tiger Woods said that about Royal Portrush. Of course it is, which is why a British Open is being played here, after a long lapse.

What Tiger Woods also said Tuesday about The Open and the course was, “It’s amazing it hasn’t been held here in such a long period of time.”

Not really. As Tiger, very up on history, inside and outside golf, surely knows. And if he doesn’t, all he needs to do is travel the 60 miles south to Belfast, where the brick walls are painted with slogans that have not faded even though the reason for their existence may have.

It was known as “the Troubles,” a euphemism for the conflict — war, if you choose — at the end of the 20th century between the Catholic nationalist minority and the Protestant/unionist government. They tell stories of neighbors playing golf with each other by day and then shooting at each other after dark.

The fighting, in effect, came to a halt with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, although some bitterness goes on. The Royal and Ancient Golf Association wanted to return the Open to Portrush, the Dunluce Links, where it was held in 1951, but needed a guarantee of calm for its premier event.

And shifting the Open to Ireland from the British island was no easy task logistically. All the equipment, the electronic scoreboards, the bleachers, had to be shipped across the Irish Sea.

But here we are and here is Tiger, literally at the most northeastern point of Ireland, where cliffs and linksland meet and the 148th Open Championship begins Thursday.

“The difference between this layout versus most of the Open rota layouts,” said Woods, “is that the ball seems to repel around the greens. You’re going to have a lot of bump and run chips or quite slow putts coming up the hills. But it’s an unbelievable golf course.”

A year ago, at Carnoustie in Scotland, Tiger had a resurgence, a verification that he still was a contender after the back surgery, after the rehab. He took the Open lead and, although he did not win, the thought was that sometime, somewhere he would.

And he did, at the Tour Champion and even more dramatically and emphatically earlier this year at the Masters. Old guys rule.

It was 10 years ago when Tom Watson, then 59, was in front for 71 holes at the Open at Turnberry. He lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink, but he proved that especially on linksland courses, where the ball rolls and rolls, that a veteran has a chance against the kids who hit it miles.

“Getting myself into position to win the Masters,” said Woods, “took a lot out of me.”

It didn’t take away the self-belief.  

“The great thing about playing in an Open championship,” said Woods, “is you can do it.”

Woods is 43. He said his game is not where he would like it. “Right now,” although his touch around the greens is good enough and that part of golf always is the most important. It is a fact a one-foot putt and a 300-yard drive each count one stroke.

“I still need to get the shape of the golf ball a little bit better than I am right now,” said Tiger, “especially with the weather coming in and the winds are going to be changing.”

Oh yes, the weather, often the determining factor in the Open. It was pleasant Tuesday, some sunshine, but the forecast is for rain and wind. Depending on the severity, a golfer could be punished by what is beyond his control.

“I’m going to have to be able to cut the ball, draw the ball, hit at different heights and move it all around. (Tuesday) it was a good range session. I need another one tomorrow. And hopefully that will be enough to be ready."

He will find out quickly enough or endure troubles of his own.


Newsday (N.Y.): Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic square off for Wimbledon title 

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

WIMBLEDON, England — Novak Djokovic is considered the best men’s player in tennis right now. Roger Federer is considered the best men’s player of all time.

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Copyright © 2019 Newsday. All rights reserved. 


Newsday (N.Y.): Halep wins Wimbledon, stops Williams' bid for 24th Slam

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

WIMBLEDON, England — Simona Halep needed less than an hour to stun Serena Williams — and maybe the entire tennis world — while winning the Wimbledon women’s final, 6-2, 6-2, Saturday on Centre Court.

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Copyright © 2019 Newsday. All rights reserved.