Bouncing towards victory with the big man in Ballyliffin

“Did you buy those clubs in a yard sale, man? Wow, they’re old…” That was how the world number five ranked golfer Jon Rahm greeted me (and my elderly set of Taylor Mades) today at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Pro-Am in Ballyliffin, County Donegal.

An insult from one of the world’s greats to an ordinary hacker? Far from it. This was a brilliantly capricious welcome from an engaging, fun sports star as a lead-in to what turned out to be one of the most memorable days I’ve had on the course.

Beautiful day: Team Rahm prepare to tee off this morning in the lovely surroundings of Ballyliffin golf course; from left, Damien Fox, Jon Rahm, Dermot Davitt and Brian King

The sparkling sunshine on the north coast of Donegal – days like this are as rare here as a Jon Rahm bogey (he is defending champion) – made the day special of course, with the backdrop of the Atlantic making for a stunning scene.

“This club is older than me” quips the 23-year-old golf superstar of my beloved driver…

People in this remote part of Ireland are starved of top-class sporting action so when one comes along, they come in their thousands. Jon Rahm himself told us that the size of the golf crowds at Irish venues, notably on Pro-Am day (before the tournament begins) is something the pros see almost nowhere else.

(Above) Another day of hail and rain in north-west Ireland…(below) caddie David Spillane tries his best to explain the difference between a slice and a fade…

Jon’s opening line kicked off four hours of banter and superb craic with me, my dutiful caddie David Spillane (the GTR Sales man was back on the bag for the third year) and fellow team members Damien Fox and Brian King (thanks to Colm McLoughlin, Sinead el Sibai and team for lining up this terrific four-ball).

Jon Rahm plays my tee shot on 16, crushing it to within feet of the green; sadly I still took five from there…

What surprised us about this giant of a golfer – he hits the ball a mile – was how refreshingly candid he was. In this era of guarded, media-trained sports stars, here was a guy who happily chatted away about relationships, life on the road, US golf crowds, Phil Mickelson and his US Open putting controversy, and much, much more, without a PR manager in sight.

Team Rahm with the wild Atlantic in the background

He’s box office too. I lost count of how many autograph hunters he politely said no too, promising to sigh every ball or card after the 18th. He was as good as his word too: well after we had left the arena, Jon was there, talking pictures with young kids and making people’s days that bit better.

Sky Sports picks me up walking with Jon Rahm (as seen by my wife’s brother in the USA); “Jon Rahm has youth and talent on his side but that other guy just oozes experience, from the way he walks right down to those ‘classic’ Taylor Mades,” they might (or might not) have said

Who said box office? And who said The Moodie Davitt Report was just on golf TV? Sky Sports, no doubt mistaking me for some kind of serious golfer rather than cutting me out of the frame, carried footage of Jon and I walking the course as part of their highlights package. And was even spotted by my brother-in-law who was watching the action in Pittsburgh, USA. Global reach? You bet…

Dubai Duty Free Senior VP Marketing Sinead el Sibai looks as surprised as anyone to see this team pick up first prize, on a memorable day courtesy of the world’s leading travel retailer at a single location

Jon Rahm made our day better in one other way too: we won the morning Pro-Am session. Our score of -30 pipped Graeme McDowell’s team on countback. I will admit that the result was delivered in much larger part by Jon and my fellow players than by me – apart from contributing a few birdies I splayed some wayward drives left and right, on one occasion hitting some poor young lad right on the backside (fortunately he seemed happy enough to take my ball as compensation).

Yes, it really did happen; the final scores of the Pro-Am morning session, with Team Rahm on top

That all means that tonight will be one of celebration at Ballyliffin Lodge, where by coincidence Jon Rahm is staying too. He says he’s getting an early night as he seeks to defend his crown as Dubai Duty Free Irish Open champion from Thursday morning. But once we fill the stunning Waterford Crystal prize vases to the brim with the local brew, we may just be able to persuade him to take a sip.

We’ll be cheering for Jon Rahm in the days ahead; and watching on as the brilliant Dubai Duty Free marketing for this event is beamed into homes around the world.

In a county starved of top-class international sport, hosting the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open is huge; the town of Buncrana in Donegal put in a special effort, complete with DDF branding, to greet visitors
Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman and CEO Colm McLoughlin greets players at the afternoon prize-giving session and reminds visitors of the company’s history and status as the leading airport retailer in a single location anywhere in the world
The winning team in the afternoon Pro-Am, which was led by pro Chris Paisley, receive their prizes from Colm McLoughlin
On the tee: Colm McLoughlin with former winner of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Soren Kjeldsen (Photo: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye).
Soren Kjeldsen and the Irish ‘Trinity’: The former winner with John Sutcliffe, Colm McLoughlin and George Horan
Jonathan Holland made his debut at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open this year, playing with former Masters’ champion Danny Willett (left)
King Power Group (HK)’s Sunil Tuli with playing partner Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn
Posing with Padraig: Colm McLoughlin introduces travel retail families the Hollands and the Tulis to Irish golfing star Padraig Harrington at the Dubai Duty Free suite; below, Dubai Duty Free management and guests meet another big Irish name in Graeme McDowell

Selfie style: At day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open on Thursday were (clockwise from centre left) Shikha Tuli, Carmel Horan, Jane Grant, Jonathan Holland, Sunil Tuli, George Horan and Dermot Davitt


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