HARD WORK PAYS OFF

IT has been an unbelievable last six months for Darren Clarke.

The big man achieved one of his life-long ambitions by winning The Open Championships last July. And last Friday another of those dream was realised as he announced European Tour golf was returning to his home course - Royal Portrush.

Clarke sat at the same top table in the same room as he did when he made his triumphant return with the Claret Jug, and his smile was just as broad.

“It’s a huge day for golf in Ireland and on behalf of Padraig, G-Mac, Rory and myself I feel very proud sitting here and saying we’ve got the Irish Open,” Clarke told the packed press conference before paying tribute to the power brokers who helped bring the Irish Open back to the North Coast for the first time since 1947.

“Northern Ireland has been through its share of troubles down the years and I think it’s a fantastic achievemnent that all the people round this table have worked so hard together to bring the Irish Open to what is unquestionably one of the best courses in the world.

“To everyone who has made this possible thank you on behalf of all the players. It means a lot to have a premier tournament at a premier course.

“It’s wonderful that we as a country have moved on to such an extent that people has shown such confidence to bring this tournament up north.

“I was born in the 1960s and witnessed a lot of the worst of times, but we have made a huge step forward.

“Sport bridges a lot of things, so to have such a massive tournament back in our country shows just how far we have moved forward.”

The golfing achievements by Clarke along with fellow major winners Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy have helped propel Northern Ireland to the forefront of everyone’s minds. And Clarke has kept the pressure on.

“I may have suggested once or twice that a major tournament should be played here again,” he joked.

“Wilma Erskine has done a wonderful job in pushing it forward and getting us to where we are today.

“It’s is such a wonderful thing for the Irish Open to be coming back here. It will hopefully be one of the best, if not the best Irish Open to date.

“I’ve no doubt the public will come out in force to support it.

“It’s going to be an unbelievable week. I have had so many of the players on to me already asking me where they can stay and what’s the course like.

“Twitter has gone absolutely crazy. That shows just how much Royal Portrush and its reputation preceeds all this.

“Everyone wants to come and play here because they’ve heard so many good stories about it. There’s not many, if any, finer tests in Ireland.

“Royal Portrush throws up a different challenge at every hole. The course requires you to use every club in the bag and that’s always the sign of a great golf course.

“Add to that it is a Links course which means you could have winds of 30-40mph. It will provide the ultimate test.”

Clarke admitted it is going to be a very proud moment for him to step on to the first tee in June as Open champion.

“It’s going to be very special for me,” he said. “It was great to be announced on to the first tee at last year’s Irish Open as The Open champion, and it will be even more special to be announced on to the firt tee here in June as The Open champion.”

European Tour Chief Executive, George O’Grady (pictured right with Clarke), said Royal Portrush is up there with the best.

“I feel that the whole of Ireland is behind this decision,” he said.

“It is tremendous news for the European tour, becuase we’ve been urged to play Links courses, great Links course, more and more on the tour.

“And they do not come better than here at Royal Portrush. We are absolutely delighted.

“I would like to thank the Irish government and the Taoiseach himself for agreeing to adjust our agreement so we can reflect the immense success of the Northern Irish golfers.

“I’d also like to thank the NI Executive for the speed at which they came to this decision for the good of the whole of Ireland.

“It’s quite emotional to come back here. Royal Portrush led by the Captain, Phillip Tweedie and the indomitable Wilma Erskine...no-one will ever know what you have done to make this work, and just how you’ve been driven by the Open champion and his colleagues.

“So many people have worked so hard to bring this day to around.”

Philip Tweedie said his year as Club Captain just gets even better.

“I thought my year as captain had reached the pinnacle when Darren won in July, but here we are sitting today will another positive, good news story for Royal Portrush,” he said.

“We had set our sights on securing a major tournament. We know the quality of the Links and were it sit within world rankings.

“But for too long it hasn’t been challenged by the world’s best golfers. It’s great to know they will be here to play in a tournament.”

STORY: Steven Crawford