A prayer to the golfing gods at the K Club

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My throat is dry, my stomach is doing flips and I can’t feel my legs. Worse, I can’t keep a firm grip on the golf club that’s shaking in my hands and the ball sitting on the tee three feet away looks no bigger than a tiny white marble.

“Go on, you just need one good straight strike down the fairway,” says my caddie David Spillane cheerfully.

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Colm McLoughlin greets Dermot Davitt and David Spillane to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Pro-Am at the K Club

“That’s easy for you to say,” I think to myself. He’s not the one standing here in full view of an expectant, enthusiastic (and worse again) highly golf-literate gallery of people. I say a silent prayer to the golfing gods, take aim at a tree in the distance, half close my eyes and swing…and so begins one of the most memorable and surreal days in my life in travel retail.

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Thumbs up: Looking relaxed but the nerves are jangling before the opening tee shot in the pro-am; in the background Des Smyth chats with the growing army of fans on the tee box

We’re at The K Club in County Kildare, Ireland, home to this week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Hosted by the Rory Foundation. It’s one of the world’s great parkland courses, a lush green beauty with the River Liffey running through it. It has hosted golf since Dr. Michael Smurfit rebuilt it 25 years ago and hosted the Ryder Cup, one of golf’s seminal events, in 2006.

Now I’m playing here. I’ve been thinking about how the day would pan out ever since I received Dubai Duty Free’s invitation a couple of months ago. Who would I play with? What will I wear? How much practice do I need? How big would the crowd be? Would I duff the first tee shot? Have they addressed this invitation to the right guy?

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Home on the range: Mixing it with the tour pros, whose entourages included coaches, physios and agents

On Wednesday I pull in to the beautifully honed course with my caddie David (well known as Director of agency GTR Sales) – who along with me and Sunil Tuli are helping to represent the wider travel retail community, along of course, with Dubai Duty Free as title sponsor.

The brilliant local organisation that blends Dubai Duty Free, The K Club, the European Tour and Rory McIlroy’s foundation means that we don’t have long to wait and are ferried by buggy to the clubhouse. It’s along the way that we begin to understand what we’re getting into here. As we approach the clubhouse the noise builds and the sight of a large crowd watching the professional players practice hoves into view amid the television trucks, gantries, reporters and army of autograph-hunters, many from local schools.

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With former Irish Deputy PM Dick Spring as we dream of a hole-in-one; the same model BMW is parked in Rory McIlroy’s space in the clubhouse car park 

A little uncertainly we make our way towards the practice grounds and to my surprise we’re admitted without a question. Now we’ve reached the promised land for any golfer: we’re between the ropes. I find a place between two touring pros who have their entourages around them, and slice the first practice ball way right – and better still, along the ground. The autograph hunters have the good grace to look away embarrassed, no doubt wondering what this guy is doing here. I’m thinking the same thing myself…

A few yards away Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood are skipping their shots unerringly down the range, each one landing in almost the same spot.

I get temporarily inspired and I find a rhythm. “Come on,” says David suddenly and encouragingly. “Don’t use up all the good shots on the range.”

I look doubtfully at him but agree reluctantly and we move to the putting green. This is not a confidence boost. The green is like a sheet of ice, but one with hills and hollows running through it. I can’t get the ball anywhere near the hole.

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Straight and true: Rory McIlroy makes it look easy on the practice range

Beside us, the tour pros are tying elastic line between poles to perfect their lines. We watch for a moment, pretend we’ve done enough and leave in a hurry.

Ah, here are some friendly faces to calm me down. We first meet members of the brilliant Dubai Duty Free team, Jasmin Micoyco and Anna Khan (who work with VP Marketing and human dynamo Sinead el Sibai), and then we’re greeted by Executive Vice Chairman Colm McLoughlin, who (although he’s fulfilling a full schedule of media and other duties before his round) looks as if he’s about to take a stroll in the park.

I feel momentarily calmed myself as our tee time ticks nearer, and then a roar goes up. Rory McIlroy is on the first tee, surrounded by an ocean of faces and bodies, all straining for a glimpse of the superstar. As he tees up there’s a hush, a strike, another roar and off he strides.

McIlroy is the face of this event in every way, staring down from every billboard from here to Dublin 30 miles away and on every advert for the event around the world. Looking on I wonder how this young man can cope with the constant attention, adulation and criticism that this level of celebrity brings – and this is still only the practice day.

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Great shot: Des Smyth, Dermot Davitt and David Spillane on the 18th fairway before we holed a putt for birdie

And then it’s our turn. We tee off not on the first but on the tenth tee so there are not quite so many people (but still too many for my liking). Our accompanying pro Des Smyth (who is well known to participants in Dubai Duty Free’s Golf World Cup each November) is glad-handing the galleries and making small talk.

He seems to know everyone, which should come as no surprise. Des is a gracious, humble guy with a big heart and a great sense of humour. He’s a Dubai Duty Free ambassador this week and pulls a big crowd today. Des helped fly the flag for Irish golf in the 1970s and ‘80s before the heady times we’ve enjoyed with McIlroy, Harrington, McDowell and Lowry – and people here don’t forget that.

On the tee we also meet Ireland’s former Deputy Prime Minister Dick Spring, a lovely man now in semi-retirement and who also has an industry connection through his work with exchange company Fexco, based in his native County Kerry.

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Rafa Cabrera-Bello adds to his legion of fans by making a lovely warm speech about Dubai Duty Free and The K Club to guests at the Pro-Am presentation

The starter calls our names: ‘Next on the tee…’ and my stomach churns once more. Time to concentrate…

Next thing I remember hearing is Des’ voice “Great shot Dermot!” I open my eyes and look up. No trees felled, no spectators running for cover, just the beautiful sight of a little white ball skipping down the fairway. I nearly burst with relief.

From then on it’s all gravy. The nerves are gone, I loosen up and play pretty well – with some duff shots thrown in so I don’t confuse anyone that I’m a real tour pro. I even get some applause for my play, which includes four pars on some tough holes and a memorable approach over water to the 16th – the hole where Europe won the Ryder Cup in 2006 and scene of an emotional victory led by the then recently bereaved Darren Clarke.

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Right on cue: Snooker star Dennis Taylor with Colm McLoughlin and Dermot Davitt

There’s a lovely relaxed atmosphere now as the sun breaks through for the afternoon. The autograph hunters track down Des at each hole, leaving us to enjoy the sights as we stroll.

There’s Soren Kjeldsen, last year’s winner from Royal County Down, who’s playing in the group with Des’ charming wife Vicky. We wave to Shane Lowry, Irish pro and one of the coming names in the global game. Over there is Niall Horan, young pop star from the group One Direction (he hails from nearby Westmeath), chased by hundreds of school girls from tee to green.

And here’s something to behold: one of the most celebrated jump jockeys in history, the now retired AP McCoy is teeing it up, but who’s his caddy? It’s Ruby Walsh, arguably the greatest jump jockey plying that tough trade today. Fierce competitors, close friends.

We bump into Pat Jennings, famous goalkeeper for Spurs and Arsenal, and have a lovely chat with Dennis Taylor, world snooker champion in 1985 in the “black ball final,” one of the most watched TV events ever in Britain.

By the end, well, I just want to do it all again. It has all gone way too fast. It’s time though to move over and let the professionals take the stage. From Thursday through to Sunday the main tournament takes place. Des Smyth suspects that a revitalised Lee Westwood could do well this week. Many of us hope for an Irish champion after some lean years, maybe even McIlroy himself.

Either way, at a venue that always delivers drama, memories and rich entertainment, Dubai Duty Free as title sponsor is a sure-fire winner.

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Sunil Tuli and David Spillane, who with Dermot Davitt and of course Dubai Duty Free represented the travel retail industry at the Pro-Am, at the door of the K Club Hotel at the close of a memorable day

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