PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Darren Clarke didn’t have to think twice when he was asked recently by R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers about whether he would be willing to hit the first tee shot to start the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush. The Northern Ireland native had been a catalyst in helping bringing golf’s oldest championship back to his homeland for the first time since 1951. And while at 50, the honor might have hinted at the 2011 Open champion being more of a ceremonial player than a true competitor this week, Clarke appreciated being asked.
Suffice it to say, Clarke’s presence was also appreciated by the gallery that awaited when he walked to the tee for his 6:35 a.m. opening time. The ovation was grand, not quite as loud as when he kicked off the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club outside Dublin, but strong enough to tug a few heart strings.
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Moved perhaps by his reception, or maybe just wanting to prove a point, Clarke proceeded to hit his approach to 15 feet and rolled in the birdie putt.
Bolstered by the emotional start, Clarke proceeded to birdie the third and fifth holes to get to three under and take the outright lead. He might have started Thursday as a ceremonial player, but perhaps he’ll end it as one of the intriguing stories of Day 1 at Portrush.