Clarke to hit first tee shot to kick off Open

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland -- Former Open champion and Portrush resident Darren Clarke will hit the first tee shot to start The Open early Thursday morning as the tournament comes to Northern Ireland for just the second time.

Clarke, who won The Open in 2011 at Royal St. George's, is among three major champions in the field who hail from the tiny country of Northern Ireland, where The Open was played just once previously, in 1951. This is just the second time the tournament is being played outside of Great Britain.

Clarke, who will turn 51 in August, said having The Open here was "beyond the realm" of possibility given the political climate in Northern Ireland in the past. He said he was nearly the victim of a bombing a few days before Christmas in 1986 at a bar where he worked.

"It was a job that I had setting up a bar," Clarke said. "I was in there at 6 o'clock and the bar was opening at 8:30. I was setting up one of the bars. The bomb scare came at 8:30 and the bomb went off at 9. That was life in Northern Ireland. Bombs were going off quite frequently, and there were a lot of people that unfortunately paid a heavy, heavy penalty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was our life back then.

"For us to have a tournament like this would be beyond the realm of possibility. It was never going to happen. So to get to this point [of having the Open] is an incredible journey with what we've all gone through."

Tiger Woods, a three-time winner of the event who tied for sixth a year ago at Carnoustie, begins play at 10:10 a.m. ET (3:10 p.m. local time) along with England's Matt Wallace and 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed. (That group begins play at 5:09 a.m. ET on Friday.)

Four-time major champion and 2019 PGA winner Brooks Koepka is with South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen and Shubhankar Sharma at 8:04 a.m. ET (1:04 p.m. local).

Rory McIlroy, one of the pre-tournament favorites and a native of Holywood, Northern Ireland, is off at 5:09 a.m. (10:09 a.m. local) with U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland and England's Paul Casey.

Graeme McDowell, who grew up in Portrush, plays with 2016 Open champion Henrik Stenson and 2018 runner-up Xander Schauffele at 4:14 a.m. (9:14 a.m. local).

Clarke will hit the opening tee shot at 1:35 a.m. (6:35 a.m. local) and is grouped with Irish amateur James Segrue and American Charley Hoffman.

Some of the other groupings: Phil Mickelson, Ireland's Shane Lowry and South Africa's Branden Grace (2:52 a.m., 7:52 a.m. local); defending champion Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau and Adam Scott (4:58 a.m., 9:58 local); Rickie Fowler, Kevin Kisner and Hideki Matsuyama (5:20 a.m., 10:20 a.m. local); Justin Rose, Tony Finau and Lucas Bjerregaard (9:48 a.m., 2:48 p.m. local); Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Keegan Bradley (9:59 a.m., 2:59 p.m. local).

All 156 players start on the first tee, with the last tee time at 4:16 p.m. local time.

ESPN's Mark Schlabach contributed to this report.