Shane Lowry’s heroics at The Open showed sport’s power to unify not divide

When the people of Northern Ireland dreamt of the perfect ending to the Open Championship they were so proud to host, it’s a fair bet that most of them hoped Rory McIlroy would be the one marching up the 18th taking the applause.

He was the favourite; their man, who set the Royal Portrush course record when he was just a boy.

Instead it was Shane Lowry, from south of the border, who collected the Claret Jug.

And it was Irish tricolours that were being waved all around the course, rather than the crown and red hand on the flag of Northern Ireland.

There were times, and there still are places, where that could provoke a riot. But not this day. And not here.

That’s what’s so brilliant about sport. It can unify rather than divide.

The cheers for Lowry came from all of Ireland, north and south, Unionist and Republican, Catholic and Protestant.

Because an Irishman had beaten the rest of the world. And that’s what really matters.

In golf, and in cricket and rugby, the Irish border which so obsesses politicians, is invisible. These sports are organised on an island-wide basis.

In fact at next year’s Olympic Games, Lowry and McIlroy are likely to be teammates, both trying to win a rare Irish Olympic gold medal.

This week, the Ireland cricket team face England in a Lords’ test match for the first time, but last week Irish fans were cheering England in the World Cup final. The captain, Eoin Morgan is from Dublin.

Later this year Ireland will be among the favourites for the Rugby World Cup. The captain Rory Best is from Ulster.

Football’s different. Decades ago the governing bodies split and there are separate teams for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

There is a fierce, sometimes unpleasant rivalry. But then Liverpool and Everton fans, or Tottenham and Arsenal supporters, share a city and dislike their closest neighbours.

As the stands at Royal Portrush rose as one to greet their Irish champion, one of those waving the green white and gold Irish flag told me he had had no antagonism from anyone.

Another said it was wonderful to have a “unifying force”. Everyone spoke of their pride and love for a down-to-earth sporting hero.

And there was another Irish winner. It was Royal Portrush.

Nobody has had a bad word to say about the course which was staging its first Open since 1951.

There was lot of lobbying to bring it back, from politicians and golfers; it could have been a gamble.

But minutes after the trophy presentation, when I spoke to Martin Slumber, the chief executive of golf’s ruling body the R&A, he was still beaming.

“This has ticked a lot of boxes this week,” he said.

“It’s been extraordinary, the Irish golf fans have been fantastic, and to crown it off with an Irish champion, we couldn’t have asked for a better week.

“The golf course has been wonderful, the players have loved it and it’s been a real honour to be part of it.”

Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist leader who first became involved in the campaign to bring the Open to Northern Ireland when she was tourism minister, told Sky News it had been an “amazing week”.

She spoke of her pride in seeing the international media focussing on golf rather than political problems, and how players were wondering aloud why they hadn’t been here before.

The R&A can’t yet say when the Open will return to Northern Ireland, but it will be sooner rather than later.

And given that there have been four Irish winners in a dozen years, who’d bet on another Irish Champion Golfer of the Year?

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