Clarke and Sugrue light the touchpaper at Royal Portrush

Clarke and Sugrue light the touchpaper at Royal Portrush
Darren Clarke hits the first shot in the 148th Open. Picture: The R&A

Darren Clarke hits the first shot in the 148th Open. Picture: The R&A

Home hero Darren Clarke got The Open off to a rip-roaring start at Royal Portrush in what was a “fairytale” day for Mallow amateur James Sugrue.

The unlikely duo were first off at 6:35am with American Charley Hoffman and they put their nerves aside to race to the top of the early leaderboard, eventually carding level par 71s on a bittersweet day for Irish golf.

As Shane Lowry sprinted out of the blocks to set the pace with a 67, Graeme McDowell turned a 68 into a 73, Padraig Harrington struggled to a 75 and Rory McIlroy crashed to a nightmare 79, Clarke and Sugrue gave day one a feelgood factor from the start.

Clarke admitted he was nervous and a little emotional but he was thrilled to be given the honour of the opening tee shot a didn't disappoint.

“I didn't think I'd feel the way I did,” Clarke said. “When I was about to hit my tee shot, I thought ‘Wow, it's The Open Championship, we're back in Portrush.’ It was amazing.”

Now an adopted Portrush man, Clarke birdied the first, third and fifth to take the lead and he had Amateur champion Sugrue hot on his heels as he got to two-under through six, rifling a driver straight down the middle at the first.

"It was unreal,” Sugrue said. “Even hitting the second shot in, I remember we came around the corner and I said, That is ridiculous. It was just packed.

“From end to end it was just jammed. It was classic. I've played in front of a few people before, but nothing like on this scale. It was fairytale stuff.”

While both would bogey the tough 16th and 17th coming home into the wind, they were thrilled to get their early nerves out of the way and start The Open well.

Sugrue said: “I was shaking. I was definitely the most nervous I've ever been on the golf course this morning.

“When I looked up at the grandstand, it was just packed and Darren walked on in front of me and the roar was just unbelievable.

“I got a nice roar myself and I was very nervous for the first and the second. I birdied the second, it set me in a little bit. And just enjoyed it really from there on in."

Sugrue revealed how Clarke encouraged him all the way around and they event shared the lead when Clarke eventually bogeyed the seventh.

Clarke explained: "I said to him on the 7th tee, ‘James, I don't know if this is good or bad. You come through my Darren Clarke Foundation, and on the 7th tee I'm leading and you're second. There's something not quite right about that'.

"We had a right good laugh and chuckle about that. James played beautifully. A really nice young man.”

Sugrue added: “On nine I had a 4-footer and he tapped his putter off my back and was like, ‘Roll that one in’. He was an absolute gent for the whole round.

“I've never heard roars like that on a golf course before. From the first to the 18th it was just incredible.

Harrington birdied the third and fifth but struggled in the wind coming home, following dropped shots at the sixth, eighth and ninth with a three-over back nine.

Denied on the greens, the Dubliner said: “I know I'm on the right track. Just today was not a good day.

“It's there physically, but mentally, it needs a bit of work.”