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Proud to be playing on home soil

We travelled over to Belfast on Monday morning.  I had only been home 1 week since Christmas so I was really excited to see family and friends before competing in the Irish Open.  In London people don't know each other like they do in Northern Ireland as there are so many and it can be a lonely place.  I'm still trying to get used to it.

My accommodation for the week was a lovely house in Portballintrae, 30 minutes' walk from the Giants Causeway and 4 miles from the course.  We were staying with my parents in law and couldn't have been better looked after.  My coach Jamie was staying with us and he'd never been to the North before.  He was amazed by the scenery and the course and was taking lots of pictures all week.  I took him to the Bayview Hotel to sample the Guinness on Monday night before the week really got started.

Tuesday was a busy day for me.  I don't normally have to attend the press conference sessions before the event but because it's the Irish Open and I'm from the North I had to this week.  It was scheduled in for 330pm on Tuesday afternoon, so I'd planned to see my coaches before it and to get physio after.  I also managed to fit in a few holes to see how the course was playing.  On the range we worked on the feeling of strong legs in my swing, this gives me a solid platform and trying to keep the width creates resistance, the key to consistent distance.  My green reading could improve a lot as well so I spent the session with Phil focusing on reading the subtle changes in the Portrush greens. 

The crowds were already building on Tuesday and I was signing lots of autographs.  My hand was getting sore!  I've never seen a European Tour event like that before and most of the players can only compare it to the Open.  It was surreal!  I decided to slip out on the 12th for a few holes as the 1st was really busy.  Rory and Graeme were just going out and there were hundreds of people trying to follow them.

The course was in great condition, the fairways were immaculate and the greens were rolling well.  The players and caddies, who can be critical, could not fault anything about the course.

I've never done as many interviews in my life at an event; it's great but quite tiring facing the cameras for up to 40 minutes.  Now I know what Rory, Graeme and Darren feel like on a regular basis.  I guess it gets easier with practice!

Professional golf is a lonely life and it's easy to loose contact with people.  It was great for me to see people from both Shandon and Castlerock out there on the course cheering me on.

I played the Pro-Am at 840am on Wednesday morning with a group of American Business men interested in starting up divisions in Northern Ireland, Invest NI staff were accompanying them acting as their caddies.  There were hundreds of people watching on every hole and I felt sorry for the guys trying to play, there isn't normally as much pressure for the Ams during the event.  It was taking me 20 minutes to sign programs and hats on each hole, so it was a long day but a thoroughly enjoyable one.  I shot 8 under and was happy with the changes we'd made to my game over the recent weeks.  I exchanged e-mails with the Americans as Bev and I will be visiting their home town later in the year and it would be nice to do some tourist stuff as well as the golf stuff.  I thought we were going to win but we finished second behind Simon Dyson's team.  Afterwards I got to meet Barry McGuigan which was really cool.  He's got so much energy and really takes an interest in how we are doing.  He's also a Clic Sargent patron and had come to speak with me regarding my caddy for the day.  The Tour had auctioned off my caddy position for the Pro-Am and a benefactor had paid £6000 for a young guy the charity had supported to carry my bag in the event.  Chris McKeown got the opportunity to experience what pro golf is all about for the day.  The bag ways nearly 20kg and Portrush is a hilly course so Owen, my caddy did the uphill sections and Chris carried it the rest of the time.  We had plenty of craic.  He's a really good guy and it puts everything into perspective for me when you see what Chris is going through.  I wish him all the best, the next few weeks are really big ones for him.  It was a long day and I finished off with physio before heading back to Portballintrae at 4pm. It was early to bed so I was ready for my 8am tee-time with Jaidee and Fernadez-Castano.  I woke to bad weather on Thursday hearing the rain on the patio.  It was a brief warm up and a trip in the bus down to the 10th tee.  Two 2 irons put me on the green for a birdie and thankfully the rain eased and the conditions became almost pleasant.  A good swing into Calamity, the 14th hole for birdie and the same on the 15th.  I didn't quite keep the round going and was disappointed with 2 bogies on the front 9 but all in all 2 under was a solid start,  Playing behind GMAC and Padraig was phenomenal, it was unreal how many people were out to watch them.  The crowd following me was also big and the noise they made when I made a 2 on the 14th was really something, I doubt I'll ever forget it.

I went home to chill out and watched Rory and Keegan Bradley on TV.  It was really cool to watch as it seemed like the whole country was behind the event, it made me really proud to be Northern Irish! Even the Sky Commentators seemed moved claiming the course might be the finest in the UK.  What good press for Portrush!

Friday was a good day for me, shooting 5 under with only 1 bogey.  It's always a pleasure to play with Tongchaiee; he's such a nice guy.  The crowds really welcomed him as he was playing some really fantastic golf.  Castano struggled a little and was caught in a couple of bunkers, ensuring his early exit.  The highlights for me were the birdies on 9 and 10 in a bowl of spectators, who generated so much noise it was amazing!  The weather was kind and we finished in the sunshine.  I then had a few more interviews; it was nice to be a superstar for the week!

Saturday was a tale of 2 halves.  I'd a lovely start with an eagle putt on the 3rd and was on the green in 2 on the 9th for a 2 under front 9.  The wind and rain had been horrendous and I was a little cold going into the back 9, think it showed as I lost concentration fractionally.  I had 3 poor iron swings and 2 poor pace putts on the way back in, I probably was a little too aggressive and paid the price.  The groups definitely had the feeling of the final few groupings in a major.  I was applauded onto every tee box and green and was high fiving the kids on the walks between the holes - surreal!  Bev is normally the only crowd out watching from start to finish.

I didn't get as much sleep on Saturday night due to my poor finish.  I birdied the first and the noise at the green nearly blew me away.  I was a little inconsistent until the 4th and then really got into the round.  The highlights of the round being the 7 iron I hit into the 16th green, it was only a few inches from the hole, and the walk up the 18th fairway, I've never had a reception like that before.  I watched Jamie Donaldson finish the last few holes from the comfort of the Bayview Hotel bar with a pint of Guinness.  It wasn't how I'd planned the week to finish but I think someone not from Ireland winning let the spotlight fall on the great event staged this week, one of us winning might have overshadowed that.  He played awesome golf and I was really happy for him.

It is a week I will not forget in a hurry.  I was immensely proud to be a Northern Irish player participating in the event at Royal Portrush.  I think it showcased the best of Northern Ireland and the hospitality we have to offer.  I'd love for the event to be a regular one on the Tour calendar as it was amazing playing in front of a home crowd.  The club, Tourist Board and everyone at Stormont involved with the tournament should be proud of the event; it has been one of the best of this season not only for the home players but for all the others on Tour as well.  I'd love to be playing in the Open at some stage in the future at Royal Portrush but will settle for another Tour event in the meantime.