The three-time Major winner has often stated that the Northern Ireland course is his favourite in the world, and this week he joins one of the strongest fields of the season in an event that has already broken records by becoming the first European Tour tournament to completely sell out for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.The hype is unprecedented, even for a tournament which annually captures the imagination of Ireland as well as the rest of the world, and Harrington is enjoying every minute of it.
“It is special that it’s here,” said the Irishman, who beat Bradley Dredge in a play-off to win the 2007 Irish Open. “I think with the atmosphere, anybody is going to be proud to win the tournament this week on this golf course and with the people that are coming out.“Even for a player who has never played golf in Ireland, and it’s his first time here and the Irish Open has no particular significance to him, he would eventually be excited to win this tournament because of the atmosphere created.
“There’s 27,000 people and they are all going to try to cram onto that 18th hole on Sunday. I don’t think you could surpass the atmosphere that’s going to be here during the week.“If you go to an Open Championship, you have 35,000 people or so. But to be honest, I think the atmosphere here will be just as good. It's quite a tight golf course that way. It’s quite enclosed. You can already feel a nice vibe about the place.
“So it’s just going to be one of those weeks that anybody playing here is going to feel the pressure, and it’s going to be an exciting week to be in contention – even more so if you win it.”Having come close to winning at Royal Portrush twice as an amateur, finishing second at the North of Ireland Championship in 1993 and 1995, Harrington did admit that there is some unfinished business this week, and he believes the course could not be in better condition for him to make amends.
“I think the golf course is set up perfectly,” he said. “I think having had the rain over the last couple of weeks, it’s going to help us out a little bit that the greens are not too firm.“There are holes where you’re going to find trouble, but you definitely can hit good shots out there and I think it would be a question of trying to make as many birdies as you can and accepting a couple of mistakes here and there.”
Michael Hoey also compared the atmosphere to that of The Open Championship, and he is delighted with the tweaks that have been made to the course in preparation for the first Irish Open in Northern Ireland in 65 years.
“I would have laid odds they would have made the golf course a bit short, but they have produced some really good course design,” said the reigning Alfred Dunhill Links Champion.“They have put a few tees just far enough back, and it’s soft conditions at the minute, which means it’s playing long. So I think this course is now set up just perfectly, and visually it’s great. It’s just pure, great links – a bit like St Andrews. It’s really good.”