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“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.
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…
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.