Portrush beams even as the weather gods frown

This was a day that had it all. Streams of sunshine, torrents of rain, high winds and even a rainbow or two, all served up by the weather gods whose moods the people of Northern Ireland know only too well.

Brand power: Loch Lomond Whiskies at The Open in Portrush, a scaled up version of the brand’s execution at the event last year; with input from brand ambassadors Colin Montgomerie and local favourite Darren Clarke (below and further down).

I’m in Portrush for the 148th running of The Open, golf’s oldest major championship, and the first time in 68 years that the event has taken place in this region, on Ireland’s beautiful north coast. It’s not the easiest place to get to, even from most parts of the island. From Dublin it’s a two-hour drive to Belfast; throw in another two-hour coach ride from there to Portrush, and you get some idea.

But as anyone who was here on day one (Thursday) can attest, it’s a journey that’s well worth it, for the stunning scenery, the majesty of the course and the joyous atmosphere around this small seaside town, which this week is the centre of the sporting world.

Much like the small town of Lahinch, which hosted the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open two weeks ago, Portrush has embraced this opportunity like a man who survived the desert heat embraces a cup of water. The big tent is rarely unfolded in these parts, and its arrival is celebrated all the more when its magic is revealed.

Tiger Woods (in the long distance) gets ready to tee off in front of vast crowds
A mixed but typical picture: The weather gods were confused whether to add sunshine or rain

I’m here with one of The Moodie Davitt Report’s brand partners, Loch Lomond Whiskies, for which this week is a brand-building opportunity like no other (our home page makeover with the brand gives you a taste).

The company has a five-year deal to be the Official Spirit of The Open, and it is making its impact felt on course – with displays and sampling bars, plus its own Pavilion that is open to invited guests and to the public – and off course, including some eye-catching promotions at airports, mainly through Dufry/World Duty Free.

Out of the rain at last, with Loch Lomond Group Global Travel Retail Managing Director André De Almeida and the new 19yo edition (depletions of which suggest it is already a popular line)

It’s a brilliant chance to recruit new consumers, even for a Scotch brand in an Irish whiskey market (Bushmills is just a decent three-iron away from here). The week is a sell-out, with around 70,000 tickets for each of the four days snapped up. And at times on Thursday it felt as if everyone who came through the gates was engaging with the brand, such was the pace with which the Loch Lomond staff were mixing cocktails and sampling its variety of aged expressions.

The rich, velvety limited edition Loch Lomond 19yo and the Colin Montgomerie tribute Three Wood Matured 25yo are the latest to join the line-up. The former, appropriately enough, carries bright green packaging to mark The Open’s arrival on these shores.

With Loch Lomond Managing Director Global Travel Retail Andre de Almeida and Belfast City Airport Commercial Director Joanne Deighan at the Loch Lomond Pavilion on Thursday
Teams from Loch Lomond, Belfast City Airport, World Duty Free, The Moodie Davitt Report and HMSHost International (CEO Walter Seib is second left) enjoy Loch Lomond’s hospitality on day one of The Open (Photos: Shirley Graham)

Personally, I will be surprised if there’s a drop left of these or any Loch Lomond stock at WDF’s Belfast City store (and I can check on my way out on Saturday, when I fly to India on my way to visit Delhi Duty Free).

Why? Because it is being promoted by two of the most natural, effervescent salespeople you’ll ever find at an airport. I met Shirley Graham (“call me Airport Shirley”) and Beverley Gilkes before we boarded the bus to Portrush, after they earned an invitation to represent WDF at the golf. They’ve been selling Loch Lomond through a dedicated space at the airport all week, and believe me, when these fun, friendly, formidable women convince you to buy, you will stay convinced. They also helped take some of the images featured in this Blog, for which – apart from their superb company – I owe them a further debt of thanks.

Dynamic duo: Shirley Graham and Beverley Gilkes from the WDF team, above at the course and below, driving Loch Lomond sales last week

Did I say this day had it all? Throw in an eight on the first and a seven on the last from Rory McIlroy, or a +7 score from Tiger Woods and it only begins to tell the tale (of despair, though for others, triumph). I followed Tiger early on in the driving rain, and even as he struggled and the weather worsened, the crowd still seemed to swell, and the encouragement became not more silent but louder. Whether or not you are a fan, this was a glimpse into the aura that surrounds a sporting great, and the pulling power he emits.

Craig Connolly, caddie for Branden Grace, takes questions in an interview session at the Loch Lomond Pavilion
A big contender, Jon Rahm, putts out on the first, while below, Scotsman Russell Knox aims for birdie on 13. (Ok, we have a particular interest; we played with each of them in the last two Dubai Duty Free Pro-Am events).

Even with the two big stars seemingly down and out, there are stories galore at the top of the leader board. For favourite backers there’s under-appreciated US golfing major specialist Brooks Koepka close to the top. For fans of dashing attacking play there’s Spaniard Jon Rahm (who I had the pleasure of playing with at the 2018 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Pro-Am). For Irish fans there’s Shane Lowry, who led for most of the day and who has the game to finally make a major breakthrough.

Whatever the weather and whoever comes out on top, there will be many memories created here between now and Sunday. Our host Loch Lomond might be from across the water, and it is investing in its international footprint, but here it aims to become a part of local history.

A room greeting from the Radisson Hotel in Belfast: If you’re Irish, there’s no need to ask.

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