Ireland’s golf prodigy Shane Lowry delivers a magnificent comeback win at The Open
“A calm day for Portrush,” intoned the weatherman on the radio after predicting gusts of 15 to 25 miles per hour and moderate rain on Sunday last week. As the final round of the Open Championship got underway, veteran Scottish golfer, Sam Torrance, sitting in the commentary box at the Royal Portrush Golf Club, keenly observed the dark clouds moving in from the North Atlantic, and chuckled wryly. “Either the forecaster doesn’t play golf, or he’s a member (of Royal Portrush Golf Club).” The conditions, that would qualify as inclement in pretty much any part of the world except Ireland, (and perhaps Scotland), typified the British Open’s moniker of ‘the true test of golf,’—a claim that buttresses the logic of why the oldest championship in golf is definitively referred to as ‘The Open Championship.’ Links golf, where it’s been played along the coast for centuries, is all about man versus the elements, and therefore, man, against his own follies and strengths.
The Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush provided the heady mix of tradition and history that the Open Championship is steeped in. A course that has never been outside the Top 100 courses of the world ever since rankings began, and which has been stymying golfers for close to 150 years continues to rely, unlike modern layouts, on unpredictable weather conditions, rather than mere length, to challenge players. Sidelined as a venue for the Open on account of volatile political conditions and social unrest in Northern Ireland since 1951, Royal Portrush is part of the milieu where some of the world’s finest golfers cut their teeth in the game. These include major winners Darren Clarke, Rory Mc Ilroy, Graeme Mc Dowell, and now, as the entire world knows—Shane Lowry.
Even before Lowry’s magnificent performance to win the Open last week, the Ulsterman had signalled a return to form by winning the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship on the European Tour in January this year. It was only his second victory on the continental tour ever since he turned pro and came five long years after he won the Portugal Masters in 2012. Not that he was winless throughout—in 2015 he won the WGC Bridgestone Invitational on the PGA Tour. It hasn’t been a groundbreaking career, but certainly a successful one. Why then, you’ll ask, was Shane Lowry dubbed an underachiever until the win last week? Ask any Irish golf fan and he’ll tell you: Lowry is no ordinary golfer. A prodigy, a boy who stunned the golfing world when he won the Irish Open as a 20-year-old amateur in 2007, and was expected, to achieve great things when he turned pro. While the friend he grew up playing with—McIlroy—would go on to deliver on that promise, Lowry’s fortunes never quite lived up to the hype.
In 2018 at Carnoustie, Lowry missed his third consecutive cut at the Open Championship. He spoke at the press conference last week about how he went to his car and wept. The slide had begun since he lost his nerve at the US Open in 2016. Leading by four strokes going into the final round at Oakmont, Lowry crashed to a six over and finished way down the leaderboard. At Portrush last week, he remarked to his caddy after the end of the third round after seeing yet another four shot lead, “…at least I won’t have to answer any questions about Oakmont, I’m four ahead going into the final round of a major.” In a sense the wry remark was typical of someone who’s been beaten down by golf. Not that Lowry need to be humbled—a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, and polite to a fault, Lowry has no airs about him. Playing with Phil Mickelson in the opening two rounds, Lowry reportedly told the American, “My game hasn’t really been where it should be for some time now. And it’s been an honour to play with you today.” You
just don’t see that sort of niceness in pro golf anymore.
Lowry is different in other ways too: most players give practised responses to standard queries in the press room. Not Lowry: asked at the end of the third round about what he’s going to be thinking about that night, Lowry didn’t repeat any platitudes about ‘staying in the moment.’ “Obviously I’ll go to bed thinking about holding the Claret Jug,” he said. “It’s only natural, isn’t it? There’s no point in saying I’ll go out and enjoy myself tomorrow because it’s going to be a very stressful and very difficult day. So I’m going to take the bad shots on the chin and I’m going to take the good shots and try to capitalise. I’m just going to be myself and play my game and see where it leaves me.”
As it turned out, acknowledging those nerves helped Lowry overcome them. He started shakily but grew in confidence as the day wore on; the shot of the day came when he stiffed his 4-iron pin high on ‘Calamity’—the dreaded par-3 16th hole at Royal Portrush. At the end the man waltzed to victory with one of the biggest margins ever recorded in Open history—five strokes.
For those not aware of Ireland’s golfing tradition, the very vocal gallery that swelled to a quarter of million people, came as a bit of a surprise. Golf is an all-Ireland sport, much like rugby and Irish Football—that means it’s played on a national scale, with school, university and county teams competing regularly against each other with their legions of supporters. That’s why it looked like all of Ulster landed up on Portrush last Sunday—umbrellas, rain capes and all. And they found their hero all right. For an Ulsterman to win at home is beyond a dream come true. But this time, unlike the time he lost at Oakmont, Lowry had less ambition and more equanimity. “…I felt at the time in Oakmont my golf just meant a lot more to me back then than it does now. I’m not saying that it doesn’t mean everything. It’s my career. But I’ve got certain things in my life that make it different. I’ve got family now. No matter what I shoot, tomorrow my family will be waiting for me.”
The author is a golfer and also writes about the game