PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland -- One practice round was enough to tell Padraig Harrington that it is no ordinary Irish Open this week.
For the first time since 1953, the event is being played in Northern Ireland over a Royal Portrush links the Dubliner rates as his favorite in the whole of golf.
"It seems like it was an inspired decision," Harrington said after playing a practice round with PGA Champion Keegan Bradley, whose Irish roots led to him taking up a chance to play. "I'm thrilled it's here and I don't think you could surpass the atmosphere that there's going to be."
For the first time a "regular" European Tour event is a sell-out, with crowds totalling 100,000 over the week ready to roar on the players whose recent successes prompted the move -- earlier than generally expected -- to stage it north of the border again.
Following Harrington's three major wins, Graeme McDowell became the first Northern Irishman to capture one since Fred Daly in 1947 when he landed the U.S. Open two years ago. Then came Rory McIlroy's runaway triumph in the same event last summer, and a month later, of course, Darren Clarke became the British Open champion 20 years after making his debut.
It was in January that the European Tour announced the decision to bring the Irish Open back north.
"It was as big a surprise to me as anybody else," added Harrington, who hopes that it leads to the Open returning not just in his lifetime, but during his career.
Portrush played host when Max Faulkner won in 1951, but it has not been back since. Political unrest has been one factor, of course, but there was also the growth of the Open into a major sporting occasion. Whether the course has the infrastructure remains the big debating point, but the Royal and Ancient is watching this week with interest.
"The course is comfortably capable challenge-wise, but I've not gone into event management at this stage," said Harrington, who now serves as an ambassador for the R&A. "They would love to bring it here, but there are bigger issues.
"I would love to play the Open here," he added. "It would be just unbelievable, especially on a course I love."
Harrington is no stranger to it. In his amateur days he competed in eight tournaments over the links and reckons that, with practice, he must therefore have played it more than 60 times. He even had the course record for a number of years following a 65, but as a 16-year-old McIlroy shot an amazing 61 during the 2005 North of Ireland Championship.
Not surprisingly, that still stands.
"It's very testing, but it gives something back as well. Hit a good tee shot and you get the chance of birdie, but there's so much trouble out there," Harrington said. "It's 17 years since I was here, but it's as good as I remembered -- and the 12th is one of my favorite golf holes."
Harrington, returning to form with an eighth-place finish in the Masters and then fourth at the U.S. Open, is back from the United States for the run-up to next month's Open at Royal Lytham. He will also be playing the Scottish Open, as will Northern Ireland's latest star, Alan Dunbar. The 22-year-old, who like McDowell hails from the nearby Rathmore club, won the British Amateur at Royal Troon on Saturday.
That earns Dunbar the chance to play not only the Open, but also next year's Masters and U.S. Open. He was planning to go for a European Tour card at the end of the year, however, so he now has a big decision to make.
"I have a week off next week, so I'll sit down and really about the plans for the future," he said.
First, though, he has a very special Irish Open -- not just the tournament itself, but also the pro-am, where he will be partnering Harrington. McIlroy, McDowell and Clarke, meanwhile, will all be playing the pro-am with their fathers -- and Clarke also has his son Tyrone as a partner.