Monday, August 12, 2019

Even Golfers Get The Blues

So here’s the thing: I’m not a big golf fan. I’ve never played golf. I do enjoy watching it on television though. I will admit that I did once enjoy a glorious day in LA with two artist-managers on a golf course. But my enjoyment was entirely down to the fact that they let me drive them around the course in a golf-buggy. I should also admit here that I’ve never driven a car in my life, so that’s why it was such a buzz. Maybe I should have forewarned them that I am a big Formula One fan. Either I scared the Bejesus out of them or they were actually crap golfers. I have to say they did talk a great game and knew exactly where they were going wrong. So fair play to them.

But, let’s get back to my reason for being in Portrush. I’m a big fan of Rory McIlroy. It’s partly to do with the fact that a) he’s world class in his chosen arena and b) he is an Ulsterman. For the exact same reasons I’d also include in that list: George Best; Alex Higgins; Seamus Heaney and Van Morrison.

One of my fictional detectives, McCusker, was originally from Portrush. He was a social golfer, so social he lost his first wife and all his property over the game. McCusker is also a big fan of Rory, Alec and George. Musically speaking he’d be more of a fan of Rory Gallagher, Planxty and Christy Moore. I’m currently working on the third McCusker Mystery, Hi Love, You Just Dropped Your Glove. In the course of this mystery, McCusker is based in Portrush and I’ve been visiting “The Port” - as I used to do most of the summers of my youth with my family - to do some catch-up research. When I was there last summer for a few days, working out locations and trying to discover the locals’ favourite haunts rather that the tourist trail, I heard all about the town being rebuilt (pretty much) for this year’s Open Golf Tournament when the game would return to Portrush for the first time in 68 years.

I decided I would return this summer myself and visit the Open as McCusker might have done. Which was all well and good, but instead of booking accommodation last year, I left it to spring of this year by which time not only were all the hotels quadruple their normal price, and you have to book for a min of four nights, but they were already all booked out and when I asked a few of them if I could go on their waiting list, I’d hear them laugh as they set the phone down.

What was available though was Glamping; glamorous camping, luxury under the canvas. It was also affordable. But those two facts should have been clues; Big clues.

On Thursday morning (18th July 2019) at crack of dawn I caught the Red Eye to George Best Airport, Belfast, stopped off for a visit with my dad in Magherafelt and then, late in the afternoon I travelled on up to Portrush. I arrived at the Glamping site in the wind and rain at five o’clock. The entrance to the site was ankle deep in muck and the grass on the way to the tent was calf-long and soaking wet. The tent was very primitive. Very unglamorous dare I say, even very un-luxurious. The father and son owners however were extremely nice and helpful. I left my case in the tent and caught the shuttle down to the outskirts of Portrush. I had planned to stay in my tent for an hour or two to settle in before heading down to the Port, but to put it purely and simply, there was absolutely nowhere to sit in the tent and the bed was an air bed and quite impossible to sit on. I was later to discover it was even more uncomfortable to sleep on, but more about that at lights out.

I was going into Portrush so all was good.

Every time I go to Portrush I get very excited. There is just something magical about the Port. There always has been from when I was a kid and it still hasn’t worn off. This time was no exception. In a break between the showers I passed the hive of activity that was the Royal Golf Club. I continued on into the town along the East Strand beach, past what used to be the entrance to the Arcadia Ballroom where I’d spent manys a happy night listening to the likes of Billy Brown and The Freshmen. The Freshmen were one of the few great showbands - so great in fact that the dancers used to stop dancing and just listen to the band. No mean feat nailing all those feet to the floor. Now all remains of the once glorious ballroom is the entrance-hall section, which before it was the entrance hall to a ballroom used to be the ladies changing rooms for their outside pool.

I was, as they say locally, famished, so I stopped off at the 55 Degrees North restaurant to get a quick bite. The food hit the spot and the waitresses were, as usual, extremely friendly. Now I was properly equipped to head off for a dander around the town. Portrush, thanks to Rory McIlroy’s efforts in helping secure The Open’s visit, had enjoyed a complete facelift - a long overdue facelift. I stopped off at a wee antique store. The owner told me that the council had paid for every shop owner (who wanted) to have the front of the store done up.

To be honest I had quite expected the town to be heaving. This was not the case. The streets were relatively empty. All the people who were visiting for the golf were still up at the Royal Golf Club. The Club had a strict no-pass out rule that the local business people were up in arms about. “How can we make money if none of these people are allowed to come out and do a wee bit of shopping?”       

The owner of the antique store, like a lot of the traders I spoke to, felt that even with their own numbers down this weekend, the actual benefit of The Open was going to be more of long term project.

Anyway, in an effort to lift their spirits I did a wee bit of shopping myself, then made my way across town to Barry’s Amusements, which over-looked the West Strand and the picturesque harbour. Barry’s Amusements Arcade is the most exciting place in Northern Ireland… or so I once thought.

It was empty!

I mean it wasn’t actually empty as in absolutely without punters. There were (literally) a few people. I’m talking thirty patrons at the very most. I’ve been visiting Barry’s since the early 60s and I have never seen so few people in there in my life. I couldn’t believe it.

“Where is everyone?” I asked the man in the information booth. Well that’s what an information booth is for, isn’t it?

“I’ve worked here for over eleven years and I’ve never seen it this empty,” he replied.

“But what about the golf influx?”

‘They’re all stuck up at the Royal and once they leave the Royal there are no pass-outs, so they can’t return to the course for the remainder of the day. The ones who are coming out are more used to the likes of Disneyworld, so Barry’s isn’t really high on their bucket list.”

I offered my condolences and said hopefully it’ll be better over the weekend. He said he hoped so but doubted it.

“Is there a chance it’ll have to close,” I asked, fearing if they can’t pull a crowd from the influx they might be in danger.

‘Heaven’s no, not at all. This is just one weekend, every other weekend Easter to September, we’re absolutely heaving in here.”

I walked further along the beach in the direction of the harbour, all the time shocked by the lack of people, while at the same time scouting out locations and characters for my McCusker Mystery. I came across the town’s new super duper big wheel. It was merrily spinning away. On closer examination I realised it was devoid of people, aka customers. It was as empty as it would have been on the streets of Bodie, Califonia.

There were absolutely no people in the big wheel’s buckets - or whatever it is they call those pods that humans sit in.

A man licking a 99 infused ice-cream cone saw me staring up at the wheel in amazement.

“Why do you think they have it spinning with no people in it?” he asked.

“As an advertisement to potential customers,” I offered hopefully.

Nope,” he replied, “if you go further down to the green there you’ll see that the BBC TV One Show is broadcasting on location tonight, and if they have the wheel spinning in the background then people out there in TV land will think Portrush is thriving and want to visit here. It’s all part of a cover-up”

Oh I do love a good conspiracy theory.

I wandered on chatting to people as I made my way over to the crowd gathered for BBC TV One Show recording. People are so friendly and easy to talk to in Portrush. Not just that, but there are so many brilliant characters on your doorstep, which is one of the reasons I’m bringing McCusker back to Portrush for this mystery. I eaves-dropped on one of the judges from Strictly Come Dancing going on about Ballroom Dancing in Ulster in the 1960s “It was huge”, he declared. I think he might just have got the wrong end of the stick there. What happened was that yes people did use to dance in ballrooms, such as the Arcadia Ballroom, in Ulster, in the 1960s but, believe you me, it was not Ballroom Dancing, as we know it today, they were attempting. Their main step was not the quickstep, but more likely the shimmy-step, where you would try to subtly sidle closer to a girl and risk all by asking, “Do you come here often?”

Eventually I reluctantly left the town centre and caught a taxi back out to the Glamping site. The driver was moaning about how the entire town’s road system has been laid out by the people who designed the track layout for Barry’s Ghost Train. The end result, he claimed, five minute journeys were now easily taking up to an hour. He kept going on about how badly everything had been messed up; having said that, we did reach the tent site pretty quickly.  

Once again I tried to sit on my air bed and once more I nearly fell off again. It was ten-thirty, too early for bed so I wandered out of my tent and over to a communal area covered with a large canvas canopy. The sides of the Henley Regatta type of sun-shelter, if they’d ever existed, had been removed so you could see the amazing soulful views over and beyond Portrush. In this area, which was empty of fellow glampers, the site organisers had kindly supplied bales of hay to sit on. By lamp light I wrote up my notes for Hi Love You, Just Dropped Your Glove. Eventually, task completed, the cold air drove me back to my tent. When I was back in my tent I realised it was colder in the tent than it was outside. It was also dark and dank. I found that attempting to sleep on an airbed was comparable to trying to sleep on a tightrope. You move an inch either-way and you risked falling off altogether. Not that I’ve ever slept on a tightrope but I think next time I’m offered an airbed I just might opt for the sleeping-on-a-tightrope option. It couldn’t be any more difficult.

On Friday morning, even the news that the electricity was off and there were no warm/hot showers available didn’t dampen my mood. For starters I was so cold I figured that even a cold shower would warm me up a little bit and I’d still breakfast to look forward to. But then I hear you say: surely if there was no electricity there would be no power for kettles and coffee-makers and toasters etc., etc. And of course you’d be right. Oh well I was heading down to the Royal Golf Club and there would be everything I could dream off down there.

Ah… but the guy who was trying to fix the power was also the guy who drove the shuttle van, so that was going to be delayed for a wee bit. He was really a very nice guy and you just couldn’t get mad with him, it wasn’t his fault.

Eventually, just before eight o’clock, the shuttle van dropped a few of us off and, quite literally, a couple of minutes after that I was inside the Royal Golf Course in Portrush, surely the speediest and easiest entrance to a mass-audience, event I have ever experienced.

There was a strange air of calm about the site. Maybe an aftershock might be a better way to describe it. Everyone seemed to be in a zombie like state and whispering about Rory’s massive meltdown on the course on the previous day (Thursday). It appears he just couldn’t get into the rhythm of his round. Everything that could go wrong went wrong and the short, least depressing, version of the story is that he was a massive seven over par going into Friday’s round. Could his massive dip in his game be put down to the pressure of being the local hero? All I can offer by way of explanation is: if it took genius to be as brilliant as he had been in the past – and he still holds the course record for the Royal Portrush; he went around in 61 when he was just 16 years old – then when you’re not in the best of form, or suffering from Rory’s Blues, or even nerves, the complete opposite can happen. When he’s on his game he does tend to make a round of golf look deceptively easy. Well that’s McCusker’s theory on the matter - and he discusses it in great detail with his partner D.I. Lily O’Carroll in A Day In The Life of Louis Bloom (the 2nd McCusker Mystery published by Dufour Editions).  Whenever Rory is allowed to keep to himself and focus entirely on his game, McCusker muses, he always delivers. However, also according to McCusker, when he’s distracted with lots of media requests and is cornered into predicting how on form he is and how brilliant he’s going to be, he mostly has a bad day at the office, or in his case, on the golf course. 

Tiger Woods - who would have enjoyed top billing in Rory’s absence - at 6 over par had also experienced a disastrous first round. Now we were faced with neither Tiger nor Rory making the cut by the end of Friday’s play. The cut is where all players who manage at least 1 over par are safe and go into the 3rd and 4th rounds (played on Saturday and Sunday). Everyone from 2 over par and above got to go home, leaving 70 golfers for the final two days.

Who would the local crowd then get to support? We’ll have more about that later as well. In the meantime I had a date with my breakfast in one of the Hospitality Pavilions, the majority of which were on the right hand side of the first green. That’s as you face up the green and away from the tee.

According to one of the greeters in the hospitality suite, it took 4 months to build the Pavilions and the rest of the plant in order for The Royal to host The Open. He guessed it would take around the same time to remove. The Suite I was in didn’t really have any atmosphere. Maybe it was a case of the room being so spread out, it made the ceiling appear lower. The numerous TVs relaying the current action out on the links were very small. The volume of the TVs was painfully low. To truly enjoy golf on TV there are two basic requirements. You need to have a nice comfortable chair and to be able to hear the commentators. The seats looked like they’d been hired from a school canteen, or, put another way, they were hard and uncomfortable. Failing ideal viewing of the TV, I always find it best to just turn the darn set off. But the TVs needed to be on because there were already players out on the golf course. The first trio, Tom Lenman (US) Joaquin Nieman (Chile) & Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spain) had teed off at 06.35 that morning.

The overall feeling from our group of people was of everyone was waiting for something.

Perhaps they were waiting for the bars to open (at 11.30 due to Ulster Licensing laws) or awaiting a legendary Ulster Fry served up to kick start our day.

In the hospitality suite, the friendly staff’s two most popular questions of the day were: 1) Where did you travel from this morning? And 2) Who do you fancy to win this?  

With their first question, the words fitted together so well and the delivery was so word-perfect you had the feeling the question must have been listed in a tournament directive. On the other hand the second question was a very clever way of avoiding the elephant in the room: Rory’s Blues.

In these circumstances I’ve learned it’s always good to have a name at the ready. I have to admit I still fancied Rory playing a blistering round and getting back in the race. Nonetheless, I felt it was prudent to examine the options and have a few names up my sleeve. Tiger, in my eyes, still couldn’t be ruled out. Tommy Fleetwood (England) seemed to be an easy name to remember, he seemed like a very nice chap, had played a brilliant round on Thursday and didn’t he nearly win something major recently? Oh yes, I remember now, he nearly won the US Open last year but Tiger Woods pipped him to the post. Tony Finau (USA) was a distinctive name and he had made a decent start earlier that morning.  Justin Rose (England) perhaps? Shane Lowry had played a brilliant round on the Thursday. On camera he was always smiling and looking like he was really enjoying playing a round of golf and he was just one off the lead. At times - when he took his hat off – he looked like he could have been Wayne Rooney’s brother.  JB Holmes (USA), the leader from round 1, looked like he knew what he was doing and was very enjoyable to watch but Tommy from Carolina (at my table) assured me he wouldn’t last the course. I decided I needed to hedge my bets and came to the conclusion it was just too early to decide. I had a quick day-dream of Rory starting off his round with a series of holes-in-one (a physical impossibility) and getting back in contention. I shared this with Tommy from Carolina who didn’t take it as the joke I had intended but seemed to spend a few seconds going through the scenario in his mind. Then I noticed what he was actually doing was checking where the closest exit was.

A few minutes later at 10.09 Tiger Woods arrived at the 1st tee on this the second day of the tournament to loud applause. His compatriots for the day’s play were Mathew Wallace (England) and Patrick Reed (USA). I decided that as the weather was holding and the rain was meant to come at 2.00 o’clock in the afternoon, I’d nip out and walk the round with Tiger. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t being rude, or even familiar. He doesn’t even know me, let alone that I exist. What I meant was I would walk with the crowd who followed Tiger & Co from tee to tee.

The first thing I discovered was how solidly some of these guys are built. That doesn’t come across on TV.

A completely opposite view was offered from a wife to her husband walking directly behind me.

“They’re not big are they, they’re all wee men.


“Great strike,” a fan cried out and the rest burst into applause.

On one of the big screens around the course, we could see Rose teeing off; he was 6 under par from yesterday. That means he was then 12 shots ahead of Tiger on the leader board. This also meant he was 13 shots ahead of Rory.

That’s one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen shots ahead of Rory. Or, as they’d say in Donegal, “That’s a massive mountain to climb.” 

And the trio of golfers, Woods, Wallace & Reed headed off down the fairway.

“Welcome Tiger,” someone in front of me called out.

“Thank you,” Tiger replied without breaking his stride or his concentration.

Their golf balls had all reached about midway up the fairway. By the time we caught up with the location for their next round of shots, I realised we were directly across the road from Kellys where the other Rory (Gallagher) played his version of the blues with his sublime band, Taste. Fruupp (my first professionally management client) also played a few great gigs in there.

I was having great difficulty getting near the first green to see Tiger & Co concluding their work on the first hole. My mantra while scouting vantage positions for better views from then on was: always walk on that wee bit further. It didn’t let me down all day. I noticed on the big screen - viewed in the hope they would show the lads putting on the green - that on another green Jon Rahm (Spain) had a weird looking 4 inch square putter. I figured it must be like hitting the ball with a bar of chocolate - just saying this in case anyone out there sees it as a marketing opportunity; remember where you heard it first.

On the next hole, the 574 yard, par 5, 2nd, they all enjoyed great applause as they teed off although… two of them didn’t fair very well with their shots. For this action I’d a much better view and all three golfers hunkered down in a near perfect (seemingly) synchronised move, just off the green. The trio - who very nearly formed a straight line across the fairway - eyed up the ideal path for their second shot. As Tiger Woods walked up to take his turn, I could see clearly he was genuinely in pain. You could see from the regret in his eyes that he wished he could be enjoying this moment more. He dropped his first shot of the day at this hole.

“Must have been cling-film over that hole,” an Ulster fan muttered to himself as he headed after the players to the 3rd tee.

Overall, as was visible on the big screens, the going was getting tough and when the going is tough the balls tend to get going… into the rough. It wasn’t a great omen for Rory. On top of which, he was due to start his round at 15.10, by which time the predicted rain would have worked up a head of steam; also known as teaming.

By the time we reached the 4th green, Woods and Co were looking like they could have done with an elevenses pit-stop for coffee and snacks. Luckily enough there was a wagon which was parked up ever so close to the green, selling such items. Professionals that the golfers were, they soldiered on, although it has to be said, a lot of their followers were happy to partake in the refreshments available.

After five holes and finding myself distracted by the action on other holes I decided my intel might be of better use elsewhere, so I peeled off the pack and headed on around the course dipping in and out of play from game to game. I also found that as the ground is rather bumpy it is much better for your ankles, in particular, to keep on the move. On top of which I found it just too sad to watch Tiger painfully trying to hide his limp. More selfishly I thought I could feel the first spits of the predicted rain. 

Tommy Fleetwood was playing well and moving up the leader board. He was great to watch if you didn’t look at his face. What I mean is, from the look on his face you got the impression he was having a disastrous round, whereas his actual play, not to mention the leader board, proved otherwise.

Some of the comments from the fans I found very amusing

“It’s like he’s got a magic wand rather than a golf club,” one guy (wearing a Motorhead T-shirt) suggested to his mates, after a particularly magnificent second shot on the 194 yard, par 3, 6th hole. This hole was also known as Harry Colt’s (named after the course designer) and was right beside the Atlantic Ocean with spectacularly inspirational, jaw-dropping, views.

I imagined McCusker maybe being mates of the guy with the Motorhead T Shirt,  and, after witnessing a couple of subsequent bad shots suggesting, “If I was him I’d return the Magic Wand to the Harry Potter gift shop and consider using a golf club again”

“That 2nd hole just needs to open up,” another armchair expert had offered.

“Aye to the size of a dust bin.” I imagined McCusker adding.

“He’s on great form, he’s dropping everything in, I bet you he got a ride last night.”

“He,” now meaning Tiger, “just needs to get on the range and bang a few in.”

I swear to you but I must have seen about a dozen Graeme McDowells in my travels around the course.

By the time I’d made it back towards the 18th hole (474 yards, par 4) I happened upon another bigger, much bigger, refreshment area, which according to my site map was called the Secondary Village. I slowed to a stroll feeling like Randolph Scott happening upon the town limits of Laramie. I felt I could take my time a wee bit now as the spits of rain hadn’t actually developed into anything. There was a massive big screen out on what looked like a village green with a lot people sitting around and drinking and following the action. Overall this group of people were giving off good vibes. I noticed a top of the line pavilion with its own balcony. It was very classy. It looked very expensive to my eyes. I thought I’d dander over to it and see what the story was. It turned out that it was a Mastercard Pavilion and on close inspection the sign outside it claimed: “Open to all Mastercard Holders” Good old Mastercard, I thought. I’m a Mastercard Holder. They mean me. Not only did they get me a discount in the merchandising shop this morning, but here they were also providing some hospitality FOC (free of charge). The two ladies at reception were very friendly and they said welcome and put a band around my wrist as they asked me where I’d come from this morning. I went upstairs which was incredibly welcoming, homely even, with ultra-comfortable chairs and a floor to ceiling big screen. The crowd were very good natured and really enjoying their golf.

I found a seat and a drink and a bite and watched the screen to notice that my earlier tip of Tommy Fleetwood was doing very well. I’d been correct, Tommy Fleetwood was the perfect name for a golfer. The net result was that he was now only one stroke off the leader, JB.         

I wondered if anything could be made of the ping of the contact the club/putter makes with the ball, as in do the golfers know from this sound if they’ve played a good shot or bad one. If so, could that be taken even further and could someone work out some sort of logarithm or develop an app that predicts the final score from sound of the club hitting the ball over say the first three holes? If so please remember where you read about it first.

At 12.53 Shane Lowry enjoyed a mighty cheer as he teed off on the first hole. 

On seeing Shane Lowry sink yet another long putt on the giant screen on the (secondary) Village Green someone in the crowd said to his mate:  “With putts like that, if I was him I’d be carefully crossing the road tomorrow; his luck is sure to change any time soon.”

At the 18th Hole (second round) a big cheer went up on the screen and in the room as Tommy Fleetwood holed his final shot of the day to go top of the leader board.

“Is the rain just getting that wee bit heavier?” someone offered as one by one the umbrellas started to go up. One of the Sky Sports cameras picked up on this activity and it was flashed up on the big screen. The people on the green seeing themselves (well at least their umbrellas) up on the big screen, started to open and shut their umbrella to acknowledge the attention and pretty soon we were all enjoying a special moment with hundreds of umbrellas, of various styles and a multitude of colours, fluttering like butterflies. Hopefully it looked as stunning out in TV land as it did on the Secondary Village Green.            

Shortly thereafter at 15.10 Rory McIlroy came out to the (adjacent) 1st tee. There was an almighty roar from the crowd that was way beyond the reaction any of the other players received. Most players enjoy varying levels of cheering/applause when they ventured onto the first green; after the final shot on the 18th green or whenever they hit a great shot. But Rory was unique in that he was applauded and cheered the entire way from the tee up the fairway and onto the green for each and every hole on his round. You could work out exactly where he was on the course from the Rory Roar following him around the Royal Golf Course.

There was such an almighty Rory Roar following his final putt on the 18th that I’m convinced that every single person, man, woman and child on the acres of the Royal Golf Course at Portrush in Northern Ireland paused in their tracks to acknowledge his genius.

He had played a blinding round. In adverse weather conditions he shot a 65, which would prove to be the 2nd best round of this year’s competition. If the weather had been on his side, or like it had been earlier in the day when Tiger was playing his round, then Rory most likely would have broken his own course record. But then tournament score cards do not have a column for the “if only” scores. The sad but undeniable bottom line was that Rory failed to make the cut by a single shot. He was gracious and emotional in his defeat as he thanked the crowd and wished Shane Lowry all the very best for the following two days play. 

Shane Lowry went on to win the Open at the Royal in Portrush during a wet July weekend in 2019. He was the first bearded golfer to win the open since Bob Ferguson won the third of his successive victories in 1882. Shane and his bearded caddie, Brian Martin, looked like they’d just happened on a round of golf at the Royal by accident and that they were trying not to giggle too much just in case they were found out. Shane Lowry deserved to win this year’s Open. He consistently played beautiful golf and he took maximum enjoyment from his own playing. That is such an infectious quality: the ability of great athletes, or musicians for that matter, to visibly enjoy their own work.      

JB Holmes who was in the lead the first day was still in with a shout on the Friday and Saturday. However he took a disastrous 87 shots on the final day. To put this in perspective every player had a bad day on the Sunday. But few had as poor a day as JB. Shane Lowry for instance shot a round of 72 the same day. JB finished in 70th place. I make this point not to try and shame poor JB, who was clearly having a bad day, but to confirm that Tommy from Carolina was spot on with his prediction.

Tommy from Carolina had another prediction he shared with me.

“This,” he started expansively, and opening out his arms around the room and pointing out beyond and on to the golf course, “this is all going to put Portrush on the map as an international touring attraction. Everything has been wonderful and so professional, so top class and the local people so warm, funny and friendly that tourists are going to be coming here in the droves from now on.”

After Tommy from Carolina’s first successful prediction, and with my local knowledge, I certainly wouldn’t be taking a bet against him.

So see youse all next year then?
p.s. I should also mention that Departing Shadows, the eleventh Christy Kennedy Mystery, is published by the good people at Dufour Editions on Oct 22nd this year.

Paul Charles © 2019