After 68 years, the British Open is back in Northern Ireland, but the tensions remain. How will NBC Sports handle the politics on air?
David Feherty has known this day would come for four years now, and yet when the sun rose on Royal Portrush Golf Club Tuesday, he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. The NBC Sports analyst couldn’t sleep. That’s why he was out by the fifth green at 4:20 a.m., watching shadows recede from the nearby bunkers. For the first time in 68 years, the British Open had returned to Feherty’s native Northern Ireland. “It’s really a very emotional thing for me,” Feherty said. “I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.”
“These are special people,” Feherty told viewers later Tuesday. “They’ve been through a lot.” Over 30 years, sectarian violence known as The Troubles killed more than 3,500 people, the majority of whom were civilians, as “peace walls” divided neighborhoods. And the tension still exists. A journalist was killed during rioting in April, while this weekend, tournament workers have been warned about the possibility of disruption and disorder, according to The Wall Street Journal. Staffers have been told to tread carefully when discussing politics in public. NBC’s broadcast will also be cautious.
“You won’t hear anything about it on the air,” Feherty said. “This is about the golf. It’s not like it’s not there, we still have problems here. You might see the rival flags on houses, or the sound of a drum beating in the background on Saturday. We won’t be talking about it.”
Instead, the broadcast will focus on the swell of visitors to the seaside town of 7,000 which will host as many as 250,000 during the competition. Hoping to woo more Americans to the region, local officials invested millions of pounds in numerous improvements, including a literal fresh coat of paint throughout the town. Game of Thrones aficionados might also recognize Dunluce Castle, home to Westeros’ Greyjoys, adding to the atmosphere.
As much as the political progress or infrastructural upgrades though, the Open’s return to Northern Ireland can be attributed to the region’s collection of players, headlined by Rory McIlroy. “I don’t think there has been a player under as much pressure as he is this week in Majors history,” Feherty said of the man who owns the Royal Portrush course record, having shot a 61 as a 16-year-old. “I think he’s ready for it…. For him, it’s going to feel like most of his life was aiming him at this point."
Feherty can be forgiven for feeling the same. A quality golfer in the 1980s and ‘90s, the Open was always his favorite tournament (he finished in the top 10 in ‘89 and ‘94). In 2015, months after Portrush was awarded this year’s Open, Feherty jumped from CBS to NBC. There were other factors involved, but Feherty says this event was a significant one. “Once I knew we were getting the Open,” he said, he didn’t consider working anywhere else. “It’s a dream for me...to have the chance to do one here.”
So there he will be, starting Thursday, reporting from holes 2, 6, 11 and 16. Calamity Corner, that last part of the course is called. But for at least one observer, it will also be where dreams come to life.