Darren Clarke, Open champion in 2011, said the honour of hitting the first shot at this year’s tournament was “up there” in his career highlights.
The Northern Irishman, 50, produced a fairytale start as he birdied the first and led on three under after five, but had to settle for a level-par 71.
“I didn’t think I’d feel the way I did,” said Clarke, who lives close to the Royal Portrush links.
“Just everything about it when I was about to hit my tee shot… wow.”
Unlike compatriot Rory McIlroy, who started with a horrible quadruple bogey, Clarke played the first hole impeccably as he found the fairway and delivered a pinpoint short iron to 14 feet before rolling in the downhill putt.
Clarke went close to a hole in one at the third before he tapped in an 18-inch birdie putt and a further gain came at the fifth before a mis-hit second shot saw him do well to card a bogey at the new par-five seventh hole following a penalty drop.
He remained at two under to the turn but a run of four bogeys in seven holes on his back nine – partially offset by birdies at the 12th and 15th – saw him card his level-par round.
“Sixteen I should never have bogeyed because I hit it like it was fine and then on 17 I just hit a poor shot,” added Clarke, who now plays the bulk of his golf on the over-50s Champions Tour in the US.
“But it was tricky out there even though we probably had the best of the day.
“It was hard to score and Portrush in this sort of breeze is a challenge.”
Clarke received a rapturous reception at the first and also as he made his way to the 18th green, and he admitted that it reminded him of his victorious walk up the final fairway at Royal St George’s eight years ago.
“Everyone was roaring. Last time I did that was 2011 on the 72nd hole. It was fabulous.
“As I told you, I was going to enjoy myself all week. I probably smiled a little bit more today than I have been – than I normally do.
“I was trying to show my appreciation to all the people around here today.”
Graeme McDowell was left to rue a horrible finish as his triple bogey at the last after a lost ball meant that he signed for a two-over-par 73.
The 39-year-old Portrush man was three under par after a blemish-free opening 14 holes before bogeys on 15 and 17 were followed by his nightmare closing hole.
McDowell suggested that he paid for a lapse of concentration on the final tee after his second three-putt in three holes at the 17th.
“I was frustrated walking on the 18th tee. It was an innocuous tee shot. I wasn’t expecting to lose the ball put it that way,” said the 2010 US Open champion.