Graeme McDowell made no secret of the fact that his primary mission in 2019 was to qualify for the Open Championship in his hometown of Portrush, Northern Ireland, where Royal Portrush next week hosts golf’s oldest tournament for the first time since 1951. He realized that goal last month at the RBC Canadian Open, where he finished in the top 10—thanks to a clutch 30-foot par putt on the 72nd hole—and earned one of three qualifying spots from the PGA Tour event.
It wasn’t just that McDowell wanted to play in front of a home crowd. More so, it was the fact that he estimates having played Royal Portrush as many as 500 times, and the 2010 U.S. Open champion also won an amateur event there in 2000, the Irish Amateur Close Championship.
It’s a rare thing to compete in a major championship on a familiar layout in your hometown, and rarer still to play on the venue you might call a home course. Darren Clarke, who now makes his home in Portrush, and Rory McIlroy, from nearby Holywood, also have more than a passing familiarity with the storied links course. It’s hard to think their considerable reserves of local knowledge—even with a recent renovation of several holes—wouldn’t be an advantage in the 148th Open.
But there is no guarantee a player can take advantage of such an opportunity. Two years ago at Royal Birkdale, Tommy Fleetwood was among the Open Championship favorites, thanks in part to growing up around the corner from the layout in Southport, England, one he used to sneak on to as a kid to play a few holes at a time. Turned out, he was a non-factor, finishing T-27 after opening with a 76.
“One of the hardest things about it [playing on your home course] is the expectations,” said Pat Perez, who for years has competed in the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, Calif., where he worked at the practice range starting at age 13 and played the North and South courses growing up. “There’s yours, and then there’s everybody else’s. You get used to it. I’ve done it so many times now, it’s no big deal. But that first time … you feel a lot of weight on you.”
“It’s a great thing to do, but there are cons to it,” said Sam Saunders, who grew up at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando and won the club championship, something the owner, his grandfather, Arnold Palmer, enjoyed. Saunders has competed 10 times at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, starting in 2006. His best finish is T-29 in 2015, and he has made the cut in just five of his appearances.
“The biggest pro for me is that you have a lot of people pulling for you,” Saunders said. “But one of the biggest cons is that it can become a distraction. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a good distraction. But, still, you have to learn to get yourself in the right frame of mind to prepare to play. And there is the pressure of wanting to play well for all the people supporting you.”
One player who would know this is Jack Nicklaus. He never played an official event at his boyhood course, Scioto Country Club, in Columbus, Ohio, but he competed for years in the Memorial Tournament, the PGA Tour event he created and has hosted since 1976 in the Columbus suburb of Dublin.
Nicklaus won the Memorial twice among his 73 tour titles. The first one, coming in the second edition, in 1977, Nicklaus considers one of “the most difficult and rewarding” of his career. Not only was he dealing with the pressure of playing on his home course, but he was handling an array of host duties that dominated his time in those early years.
“It’s my biggest thrill,” he said in the aftermath after his first professional win in his hometown made him the first player to surpass $3 million in career earnings. “It’s probably the hardest golf tournament to win I’ve ever had. All of the majors I’ve won … this is something else for me.”
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Who knows if Old Tom Morris felt any particular pressure or sensed he had an edge when he competed in the 1873 Open Championship at the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, where he was born. He won each of his four Open titles at Prestwick. By the time St. Andrews hosted the Open for the first time, he was 52 years old. Morris ended up seventh, 10 strokes behind winner Tom Kidd.
More recently, though, we can find three examples where the local hero won either the PGA Championship or U.S. Open. In 1953, Walter Burkemo, a Detroit native and resident, won the PGA at nearby Birmingham Country Club, which was only six miles from Franklin Hills Country Club, where Burkemo was the head professional. Birmingham might not have been his club, but Burkemo had experience on it, and he undoubtedly benefited from being close to home during the seven-day championship, which included 36-hole matches each of the last four days.
In 1935, unheralded Sam Parks, Jr., a native of Bellevue, Pa., a Pittsburgh suburb, won the U.S. Open at nearby Oakmont Country Club. Parks, 25, was a club pro at South Hills Country Club, but he was familiar with Oakmont, and he made sure he knew all its nuances by playing it daily for a month leading up to the championship. Parks won by two strokes over Jimmy Thompson, and Walter Hagen was three back. With only two three-putt greens in 72 holes, Parks shot 11-over-par 299, considered a remarkable score at Oakmont, and it was his second victory at the brutal layout after his Pennsylvania Open victory the year before.
Francis Ouimet’s victory in 1913 at The Country Club, in his hometown of Brookline, Mass., is the all-time standard here. His playoff win over British greats Harry Vardon and Ted Ray was considered a titanic upset. The championship was postponed until September so that the Brits could compete. Ouimet, coming off the U.S. Amateur, nearly didn’t play until his entry was requested by USGA president Robert Watson. Ouimet was just 20, and although he was a member of nearby Woodland Golf Club, he had caddied and played a bit at The Country Club, which was within sight of the house where he was raised. The locals hoisted him on their shoulders after he defeated Vardon by five strokes and Ray by six and papers across the county placed the feat on their front pages.
“There’s a lot to be said for being comfortable with a golf course,” said Tom Lehman, 1996 Open champion, who at age 60 made the cut in last week’s 3M Open at TPC Twin Cities, a course he helped renovate.
Comfort is derived from local knowledge, or the awareness of esoteric nuances, yet it might be nullified by a tournament setup wholly different from what a player encounters during a casual round. Australia’s Jason Day, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, often plays at Muirfield Village. The former PGA champion is amazed at how different it can play for the membership, with greens rolling at 10 or so on the Stimpmeter compared to 13 or 14 during the tournament.
“The only real local knowledge out here is not playing a course your whole life, it’s being out on the tour enough to know what courses are like in tournament conditions,” Saunders said. “At Bay Hill, yes, I know the golf course, but during the tournament it’s not the golf course we usually play. It can be completely different. All the lines [off the tee] change. The greens are so much faster.
“Most people think that if they play at a course where they hold a tournament and they can shoot 75, then that’s what they could do when it’s set up for a tournament,” Saunders said. “But their 75 might be a 90 once they get on a tournament setup.”
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Portrush native Ricky Elliott, the caddie for World No. 1 Brooks Koepka, played in the same junior programs at Royal Portrush with McDowell. Though Elliott has extensive experience at Royal Portrush—he figures more than 1,000 rounds—he is wholly anticipating finding a setup for the 148th Open that will challenge even his notion of familiarity.
“They can put the pins in some very difficult places—places I might not have seen—and really control the scoring,” he said.
Perez said that the Open setup might be strange to the Ulstermen, but they still will enjoy an enormous advantage in the championship. “They’ll know how the course plays from different wind directions, and that will be huge,” he said. “You know who that plays into the hands of? Rory. He’d be the favorite. And I would think Graeme will play well, too. So few guys have seen that golf course that it can’t not be an advantage for the guys from around there.”
Elliott is hoping that his intimate insights will make the difference for Koepka, who has finished first or second in his last four majors. Because Elliott is from Portrush, he expects Koepka to be embraced by the locals through association. No, Koepka wouldn’t be hoisted on their shoulders like Ouimet was at The Country Club, but there would be one heck of a celebration—with Elliott leading the way.
“It would be the biggest win I’d ever be involved in,” he said. “I might not come out of the pub until the Presidents Cup.”
Which is in December.