The Open 2019: BBC's Dan Walker tackles Royal Portrush

Dan Walker and caddie George The Baptist
George the Baptist has carried bags round Portrush more than 6,500 times

The rain was bouncing off the floor and the clubs were already wet as I stood on the first tee of Royal Portrush's Dunluce Links last month.

"You need to avoid that bunker on the left but also don't go right, that rough is horrible," warned my caddie, known locally as George the Baptist. "So really, straight down the middle is perfect."

I followed the instructions, straight and long down the middle. Nine iron to the green and a solid two-putt par.

"Well done. There'll be tears before the end though," giggled the hugely entertaining and knowledgeable George, a man who has carried a bag for more than 6,500 rounds at this glorious Northern Ireland golf course.

When you get invited to play golf at Portrush - the venue for this week's 148th Open Championship - you drop everything. It's generally regarded as one of the best 20 courses in the world.

The R&A - who run the game in the UK - had set up the very first Open Links Invitational to highlight the unique challenge which awaits the world's top golfers and celebrate the tournament's return to Northern Ireland for the first time in more than 60 years.

I was paired with the lovely Iona Stephen from Golfing World and with her playing off scratch as a professional and me off a handicap of three we didn't have much room for error.

The anticipation hits you as soon as you get anywhere near the place. "Are you going to Portrush?" asked the cabin crew on my way up the steps to the plane at Manchester airport.

The taxi driver from Belfast regaled me with stories of some of the famous faces he'd taken to the course over the years and - even a month before it all kicks off - there were people outside the entrance to the club eager to see what was happening.

This Open Championship is going to be a something else.

You've not been able to touch a ticket for months. All 215,000 disappeared in record time and it is all anyone is talking about.

The Irish Open at Lahinch at the start of July showed the appetite for golf in Ireland. So many of the professionals mentioned the enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowds and Portrush will be no different.

Every bar, hotel, guesthouse and resident in the town is geared up for the world of golf to descend.

Terry Dobbin will be caddie master for the week of the tournament and summed the mood up nicely. "We can't wait to have them here. I think they'll almost love it as much as we do," he said.

The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush has always been rated as an amazing test of your game and that certainly won't change. As is usual, there have been a few tweaks made by the authorities - such as the addition of two new holes - and wherever you look there are great holes offering huge opportunities and potential peril.

"It looks great but it can make you cry," says Gary McNeill the Portrush professional. He must be mates with George.

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Former Open champion Clarke plays new 7th hole at Portrush

There are so many holes to pick out. The par-four fourth is a beast with its length, tight fairway and tiny entrance into the green.

That produced my second bogey of the day but at least the rain had stopped and I got the shot back with a birdie at the stunning downhill par-four fifth.

At only 380 or so yards it will tempt the big boys to try and drive the green which is perched on the edge of a cliff with the drop to Whiterocks a couple of yards beyond. I opted for safety. A three-wood, a wedge to six feet and my first birdie of the day. I popped in another at the ninth to finish the front nine in two over par.

Another birdie putt dropped on the 10th, this time from 12 feet, and as I skipped off the green George raised his hand."The 14th green will wipe that smile off your face," he chuckled. "There are quite a few places on there where you'd be happy with a four putt."

Thankfully my eight-iron into the 14th green stayed on the front edge and I managed a flukey two-putt par.

One other thing I learned from my trip was how golf, like many of us, is becoming increasingly aware of its affect on the environment. This year the R&A are running what they call an 'Open Water Project'.

In the past about 130,000 single use plastic water bottles would be used at each Open Championship but in 2019 that number will be zero.

All the players will get a reusable bottle to refill on the course and there are 10,000 free ones being given out to spectators with many more available at the venue. They are well aware there is a long way to go but it sounds like an important step forward.

I'm sure you all want to know how I finished...

The last three holes will provide a brilliant climax to the tournament.

The 235-yard par-three 16th is a textbook card-destroyer. It's called Calamity Corner and many an Open dream will end if you're short or right on that hole. And, if you're long or left you won't be in great shape either!

Thankfully we were playing this one from the forward tees, so it played just 208 yards. I launched a five-iron into the air and found the green but my 30-foot birdie putt lipped out.

The 17th is a drivable par-four for the big hitters, although well-placed bunkers will catch errant shots, while the last is a perfect dogleg, leading to a green flanked on three sides by huge grandstands.

I missed a birdie putt on 17 and disappointingly left a tiddler on the green on the last to finish a couple over in pretty benign conditions and gathering gloom.

"Well done lad," said George as we strolled back to the clubhouse.

George, like everyone from Portrush, would love a local to do well.

I played with Graeme McDowell at the Scottish Open pro-am at The Renaissance Club last week and he is buzzing for the challenge. Since securing his place at Portrush with a strong showing at The Canadian Open, McDowell has been able to look forward to a return to his golfing roots.

"I would love it to be me," he told me. "I hope the game is in shape. I know the course, I love the course and winning there would be something very special."

I really do think Portrush is going to provide an incredible test and a great champion this week. No-one can promise you it'll match the drama of the cricket World Cup final but the feeling right across golf is that the return of The Open Championship to Northern Ireland is going to be memorable.

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