PORTRUSH, Ireland — It was about 6:30 a.m. when Darren Clarke, sporting a gray beard to match his swept-back gray hair, walked onto the first tee at Royal Portrush to hit the opening shot of a British Open he never thought would happen.
He almost welled up when his name was announced to applause from the packed horseshoe grandstand at No. 1 and the galleries lining the fairway.
An hour later, he was leading the championship after three birdies in his opening five holes, receiving the kind of roars he hasn’t heard since lifting the claret jug at Royal St. George’s in 2011.
"I didn’t think I’d feel the way I did," said Clarke, who was just as emotional as he strode down the 18th fairway, saluting the crowds with his putter in his right hand.
Clarke wound up shooting an even-par 71. If the score wasn’t memorable, the experience certainly was.
With "The Troubles" mainly behind them since the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, the Northern Irish are hosting golf’s oldest major for the first time since Max Faulkner won at Royal Portrush in 1951. It is back 68 years later, in a pretty town Clarke now calls home.
"You go back and take a look at some of the pictures 20 years ago, we wouldn’t be standing having this conversation," he said. "You go down the street, maybe not here, but you see police everywhere, you see Army everywhere. You don’t see that anymore. We’re very proud of our country."
It is why that first shot meant so much to him, why he felt the kind of nerves he hasn’t experienced for a while after waking up at 3:15 a.m.
The silver claret jug on display next to him, Clarke found the right of the fairway at No. 1 and later holed a 15-foot putt for birdie. More birdies came at the par-3 third and the tough fifth that runs out toward the North Atlantic.
It was a mixed round after that as he played some shots "that come with being 50," like a 4-iron at the par-5 No. 7 that squirted so far right he had to take an unplayable lie from thick grass.
He hit to inside two feet, though, for a birdie at No. 15 and struck an approach right at the flag at No. 18, where he made par.
"I was going to enjoy myself all week," Clarke said. "And I probably smiled a little bit more today than I have been."