Darren Clarke was a teenager working at a bar in his hometown of Dungannon when the call came in.
The message was simple: Get out or get killed.
It was a few days before Christmas in 1986 and Northern Ireland was at war with itself — and by proxy, the government in London. “The Troubles,” as they are euphemistically known here, were raging and no one knew who the next target would be.
Clarke and his fellow workers took heed and got out.
Clarke recalled the close escape this week amid preparations for a home British Open he thought he would never see. The Open is back in Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years, and Clarke will step up to the first tee early Thursday morning and hit the first shot in Portrush.
Tensions remain beneath surface
As with anyone who grew up around here during the time, though, The Troubles are never far from his mind.
“That was life in Northern Ireland. Bombs were going off quite frequently,” Clarke said. “And a lot of people, unfortunately, paid a heavy penalty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The Troubles that killed more than 3,700 people have largely ended, thanks to the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998. Still, tensions between unionists, mostly Protestant, and Roman Catholic supporters of a united Ireland still simmer beneath the surface and there are occasional incidents like the shooting death earlier this year of journalist Lyra McKee during rioting in Londonderry.
And with more than 200,000 fans expected to flood the course before play ends Sunday, the focus for both them and Clarke is now on golf.
“It goes without saying, it’s a huge thing to have it back here in Northern Ireland again,” Clarke said. “It’s going to be an amazing tournament. The atmosphere is going to be sensational.”
Indeed, the atmosphere might already be ahead of projections, with fans streaming out of the nearby train station to get a glimpse of their favourite players in Tuesday’s practice round. In between they could look at the spectacular vistas that spread for miles from the links course perched on a cliff overlooking the sea.
It’s a bucolic setting that belies the violence that is mostly past. And it’s an important way to spread the idea that Northern Ireland is not only the home of major champions like Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, but some of the best golf courses in the world.
It’s also a way to show the world that Northern Ireland is moving on from its past.
The golf, at least at Royal Portrush, could be as spectacular as the views. This is a British Open with a little of everything for golf fans, from Tiger Woods trying for another major to McIlroy, McDowell or even the 50-year-old Clarke winning on home soil.
‘Fair golf course’
“The thing about Royal Portrush, it’s a fair golf course,” Clarke said. “If you play well around Portrush you should have the opportunity to score well. If you’re missing too many shots you’re not going to get around Portrush, and that’s the way it is.”
Still, to a newcomer there seems to be an increased police presence outside the course than there has been at other Opens. There are signs posted that warn plainclothes officers are around, too, should anyone contemplate anything nefarious.
But to Clarke things seem far different from when he was growing up playing rugby and soccer nearby. The course he played most in Dungannon, he said, was probably the most bombed clubhouse in Northern Ireland for a time.
“I had friends and relatives who were murdered, all sorts of bits and pieces,” Clark told the Daily Mail last week. “It just happened.”