When Chief Executive of the R&A Martin Slumbers gleefully announced on Wednesday that this 148th staging of the Open at Royal Portrush would be the best attended of any outside of St Andrews, it was a final note of vindication of the decision to bring the Open back to Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years.

On Monday, Padraig Harrington gave credit to Gavin Caldwell, who would go on to be captain of the R&A, for beginning the process as he nudged the idea of the Open returning to Portrush in front of his colleagues in St Andrews after the Dubliner's victory in Carnoustie in 2007.

Then, as Harrington himself described, came the 'perfect storm’ of further major championship successes for himself in 2008, for Graeme McDowell in 2010, then for both Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke  in 2011.

It was at Clarke’s post victory press conference at Royal St Georges eight years ago that the question was asked and put to the R&A's then Chief Executive Peter Dawson whose face contorted into what appeared to be one of scepticism but he stopped short of dismissing the return of Portrush to the rotation.

Eleven months later, at the conclusion of a rain soaked Irish Open staged on the famous Dunluce links in front of European Tour record crowds of 112,000, R&A staff who had been visible all week, admitted cautiously to the obvious potential.

There were hurdles to be overcome and the lack of space around the existing 18th green was the primary obstacle but there was also an opportunity offered by the relatively flat land occupied by the closing hole and the adjoining par-5 17th.

The delicate issue of removing and replacing them was debated and ratified at a club EGM in 2014 and so plans were drawn up to take land from the adjoining Valley course to create a new par-5 seventh and par-4 eighth. 

That meant that the pre-existing par-4 16th, one of the strongest holes on the course, would now become the 18th. The solution looked like a win-win all round and so it proved to be with the announcement in 2015 of Royal Portrush’s return to the rota.

The new 18th tee at Portrush

It was still a bold move by the club’s membership to so radically alter a links design which bore the famous names of Old Tom Morris and Harry Colt as architects. However, when the seeding on the new holes, designed by MacKenzie and Ebert, knitted in fully, there was no sign of a seam between the old ground and the new.

The two new holes through the dunes took their place in the layout as though they had been in existence for a century and by 2017 the altered design began to take shape and was on schedule for the staging of the 2019 Open.

To say the course was nurtured and protected by course manager Graeme Beatt and his staff would be an understatement. In April, it looked almost ready for championship play but just needed the rough to grow. A wet early summer and heavy rains last week took care of that. 

There’s is nothing ‘tricked up’ in the set up for this week as the R&A favours playability and entertainment over severe punishment. It retains some natural defences in the folds of the land but some wind is always required around any links. 

"This is just a wonderful course", gushed Tiger Woods this week. "It can play so many different ways, depends on the wind. Some of the bunkers here, you wonder why in the hell is it there and then all of a sudden it’s in play."

"The difference between this layout versus most of the Open rota lay-outs is that the ball seems to repel around the greens a lot. You’re going to have a lot of either bump-and-run chips or quite a bit of slow putts up the hills. But it’s an unbelieveable golf course".

Woods seemed to talk down his chances this week when he untypically admitted that his game appeared a bit undercooked having played only three tournaments since his Masters win in mid-April.

"It’s not quite as sharp as I’d like to have it right now," he admitted. "I’m going to have to be able to cut the ball, draw the ball, hit it at different heights and move it all around."

Understandably the biggest galleries of the practice days followed Woods but also Rory McIlroy whose poise and calm during his own press conference on Wednesday was striking given the piece of history that awaits if he delivers on his tag as Championship favourite.

The round of 61 he shot in the North of Ireland Championship strokeplay qualifying round in 2005 has followed him around all his adult career. He was just a week past his 16th birthday when he achieved that and it drew attention to the talent that eventually emerged as a future World Amateur and Professional Number One and four-time major winner.

All eyes will be on Rory McIlroy

There are other reasons for McIlroy being installed as favourite like the soft underfoot conditions which are similar to those which prevailed at Hoylake in 2014 when he took a six shot lead entering the final round eventually winning by two from Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler.

There’s also the fact that his caddy Harry Diamond has plenty of local knowledge, having frequently played in the North of Ireland Championship - once reaching the final.

But how will McIlroy handle the occasion and the expectation of the likely enormous gallery that will follow him. He’s been searching for some perspective to help him in that regard and he feels he’s found it.

"I want to keep reminding myself that this (week) is a wonderful thing for this country and for golf in general", he said.

"I think if you can look at the bigger picture it sort of takes a little bit of pressure off", he added.

"I’ve always felt I’ve played my best golf when I’ve been totally relaxed and loose and maybe that environment is what I need. I still want to play well and concentrate and do all of the right things but at the same time just having that perspective might just help me relax a little bit more," he concluded.

McIlroy is the last of the six Irish in the field to tee off in Thursday’s first round at 10.09am. The first ball of the 148th Open Championship will be struck by Portrush resident Darren Clarke at 6.35am. He’ll be partnered by the Amateur Champion James Sugrue from Mallow.

Padraig Harrington in next of the Irish on the course at 7.30 am followed by Shane Lowry at 7.52am while Graeme McDowell, who grew up near the Dunluce Links, tees off at 9.14am.