Portrush duo take the limelight early on third day of The Open at Royal Portrush

The cock had already crowed on Saturday morning long before the opening tee-off time on day three of The Open Championship.

Saturday, 20th July 2019, 8:26 pm
Gary McNeill on the first tee. PICTURE: John Dickson

And for the early birds to the North Antrim coasts there was the opportunity to cheer on two home town heroes.

The head professional at Royal Portrush Gary McNeill was given the honour of accompanying first man out Paul Waring on the third day of The Open.

With an odd number - 73 players made the cut - Waring was given a marker to play alongside as he teed off at 9.35am and that prize was handed to McNeill, who missed out in qualifying for the tournament outright last month.

The club shop closed so staff could hear the announcer ‘ on the tee and from Royal Portrush, playing as marker, Gary McNeill’ and then watch McNeill tee off with a somewhat understandably nervous low, left shot off the first.

His caddie was ‘The Rocket’, Paul Rodich. McNeill confirming he had been a member at Portrush for 50 years.

McNeill duly his enjoyed his day, Waring have to play second fiddle as the crowds welcomed the local man warmly to every part of the ground.

He will have walked down the 18th many a time, but never to the reception he received from what was a packed grandstand, which had nothing to do with the fact Francesco Molinari, Bubba Watson and Graeme McDowell were in the following two groups.

McNeill’s approach shot was as good as he could have wished, Waring putting his into the Grandstand to the right, both men putting our eventually for par.

It was a memorable morning for the local head pro - and he gets to do it all again on Sunday morning.

Portrush-born McDowell, who had already enjoyed a solid enough morning with four birdies and two bogeys, delivered an amazing second to the 18th green to the delight of the fans.

He has enjoyed tremendous support all week and the ovation he received as he approached the 18th would have been heard on nearby Rathlin Island.

He duly popped the ball into the hole to complete his birdie and card a round of 68 and take him back into the red for the tournament at minus two.

From a ‘local’ perspective the day belonged to McNeill and he reflected: “I was actually okay. I went down to the range last night and warmed up a bit. I hit them okay.

“I hit the ball quite well this morning when I went down. I felt okay on the first tee. As soon as I took the club back it felt foreign. It was a bit low left off the heel. After that I drove the ball really well. I didn't miss many fairways after that. It was just great fun.

“So many people. So many of the members are out there, friends and people that we know. So it was great. The reception was unbelievable. The players are getting out there, they must be having a ball.”