Into the swing in Portstewart with “the Rory McIlroy of duty free”

“Tubber Patrick: The finest opening hole in links golf?” the Portstewart Golf Club website asks teasingly. Or, if you translate from the native Northern Irish, it means “are you really sure you want to do this?”

I’m standing on hole number one at Portstewart, home to this week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by The Rory Foundation. It’s a stunning setting, with the waves crashing onto the beach nearby, the sun high in the sky and the lush greenery of the course laid out before me. We’re also close to some of the region’s great attractions, such as The Giant’s Causeway and the Bushmills distillery. I might even appreciate my surroundings were it not for the 500 people who have just applauded me to the tee and have now gone silent, awaiting my shot. A record crowd, they told me. I just didn’t think that would include the Pro-Am, the event that precedes the four-day tournament proper.

Preparing for lift-off: John Sutcliffe, Lee Westwood, Sunil Tuli and Dermot Davitt at Portstewart Golf Club on Wednesday

Last year’s Pro-Am at the K Club slides into my mind and the same old opening hole feelings return. Dry mouth. Tick. Sweaty palms. Tick. Legs wobbling. Double tick.

Tubber Patrick? I’m thinking, where is Saint Patrick when you need him? I swallow once, re-grip the club and swing…

With Lee Westwood as a memorable round comes to a close at one of Ireland’s most picturesque courses

Actually, this first nerve-shredding moment apart, I’ve hit the jackpot here. I’m playing with friends and fellow duty free industry veterans Sunil Tuli (of King Power Group Hong Kong) and John Sutcliffe (former ARI-Middle East boss). On my bag (for the second year in a row, and no I didn’t have to lure him under false pretences) is GTR Sales’ David Spillane, exerting a calming influence on me like some shamanic (or should that be manic?) golf whisperer.

And then there’s the kicker: we’re playing with one of the great names in world golf: Lee Westwood, alongside his ebullient caddy Billy Foster. The ten-time Ryder Cup competitor and former world number one is one of the good guys on the tour, and while touring around with us also manages to make time for the army of autograph hunters who are following us (well him).

Brothers in arms: David Spillane and Lee Westwood’s caddy Billy Foster during our round

With his mighty drives Lee puts our team in position A on fairway or green nearly every hole. The fact that we cannot sink a putt isn’t his fault (we all blame our caddies anyway).

We talk golf, horses (a favourite subject of Westwood’s, an owner himself) and the thorny subject of fame too. Having watched the relentless requests for selfies and signatures, you wonder how he copes with being among the most recognisable faces in a big-time sport?

Dash of colour: A memorable day in Lee Westwood’s company draws to a close on the 18th tee

I suggest to him that if he slipped away to Asia or middle America, he would not be known on the street. “No,” he answers, “it’s pretty much the same everywhere. If you take your cap off not as many people know you, but that’s about it for disguise.” Given that, the patience he shows with the crowds is remarkable. Then again, if you reach the top in a high profile sport, it comes with the territory. As we walk off the 18th at the end, our last sight is of Lee, signing caps, smiling for photos and shaking hands. He’s probably still there now.

There’s only one beer brand for Colm McLoughlin; John Sutcliffe gets ready for the perfect pour in the Dubai Duty Free suite in Portstewart
John and Anna-Marie Sutcliffe with the 18th green in the background on a stunning afternoon
At the entrance to Dubai Duty Free’s magnificent facilities this week; below, David Spillane gets the feel of a bag that would become considerably lighter later in the day, as a series of balls found the Portstewart deep rough

Straight and true: Colm McLoughlin tees off on the first as the crowd gathers; out of shot is a packed grandstand

The evening prize-giving brings another lovely moment in a day that’s been full of them, and it comes courtesy of former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley.

First, Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin welcomes guests and hails the growth of the event in recent years, noting the retailer’s sustained support, in partnership with Rory McIlroy. Then the team led by Japanese pro Hideto Tanihara takes the top prize in the Pro-Am, before an interview with McGinley about the Irish Open’s revival.

The winning Pro-Am team led by Hideto Tanihara included Northern Ireland football boss Michael O’Neill (third from left), whose birthday it was

He lauds the impact on the event of McIlroy, who he describes as the world’s best player, and he hails the faith that Rolex and the European Tour have placed in the event, with the new US$7 million purse.

In closing, McGinley then turns to Dubai Duty Free. “I’d like to pay tribute to Colm McLoughlin. Colm went abroad in 1983 with a group of Irish colleagues to open an airport shop in Dubai, and he and his team have built this one-store business into a US$2 billion industry today. They have led the way in the worldwide duty free business. It’s a great story.

“I mentioned Rory McIlroy and his superstar status. Well, Colm, you are the Rory McIlroy of duty free, and we are so proud that you are Irish.”

A touching, heartfelt moment – unprompted and unscripted – to close one of the great days, courtesy of one of our industry’s great companies: Dubai Duty Free.

Colm McLoughlin: “The Rory McIlroy of duty free” as Paul McGinley (below) put it beautifully

The event has attracted leading Irish celebrities and politicians; pictured with King Power (HK)’s Sunil Tuli are (left) Gerry McIlroy, father of Rory, and former Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, who stepped down from office just a month ago

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