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Irish fans can’t wait to crown Lowry

As Shane Lowry went through the post-round car wash of media obligations not far from 18th-hole scoring after a scintillating course-record 63 on Saturday, his adoring fans refused to leave Royal Portrush

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – As Shane Lowry went through the post-round car wash of media obligations not far from 18th-hole scoring after a scintillating course-record 63 on Saturday, his adoring fans refused to leave Royal Portrush. They serenaded him with a rousing verse of “Ole, Ole, Ole.” They chanted, “Lowry, Lowry, you’re so great.” Perhaps strangest of all, they offered a unique rendition of the stadium classic “Hey, Baby” that went:

Hey, hey, Shane Lowry
(Ooh aah)
I wanna know (oh ooh)
If you'll be my girl”

“Do they not know there’s another day and he hasn’t won the British Open yet?” one observer wondered.

Shane Lowry
Shane Lowry, the toast of the Irish isle through 3 rounds of the British Open, salutes the fans Saturday at Royal Portrush.

Indeed, it was a celebration usually reserved for the “champion golfer of the year.” The 32-year-old Irishman took advantage of benign conditions at the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush and poured in eight birdies to shoot 8-under 63 and open a four-stroke lead over England’s Tommy Fleetwood heading into today’s final round of the 148th British Open (scores and tee times).

“That's the most incredible day I've ever had on the golf course,” said Lowry, who hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation and set the British Open 54-hole scoring record at 16-under 197. He erased the mark of Tom Lehman, the 1996 champion who said goodbye to the Open on Friday, from the record book.

Once Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy missed the 36-hole cut on Friday, Lowry became the local boy of sorts – he grew up four hours away, in Clara, County Offaly – with a shot of hoisting the Claret Jug. Seemingly all of the Emerald Isle hopped onto his bandwagon and provided an emotional lift. The cries of “C’mon, Shane!” were deafening.

“Walking from the green to the next tee, the people are literally a yard away from you, roaring in your face as loud as they can,” Lowry said. “I kept trying to make every putt just because I wanted to hear that roar again.”

But for all of his brilliance – he barely missed a 20-foot putt for birdie at the par-4 18th that would have tied the lowest round in a major – Lowry knows that winning his first major title today will be no slam dunk. Lowry’s four-stroke margin matches his lead going into the final round of the 2016 U.S. Open. At Oakmont, he became the first player to lead a U.S. Open by four strokes or more and not win since Payne Stewart in 1998. Lowry finished the rain-delayed third round on Sunday morning and then tossed and turned during the six-hour wait for his tee time, only for his putter to let him down.

“I think I learned a few things that day about playing in the final round of a major with a lead, that you need to just hang in until the very last minute,” he said. “You never know what can happen.… I think I’m ready for it.”

But will he be ready for the worst of the weather? The forecast calls for “strong winds and spells of heavy rain,” with gusts up to 35 mph. Concern that conditions could border on unplayable prompted the R&A to push up the final-round tee times. The first game begins at 7:32 a.m. local time, and the final twosome goes off at 1:47 p.m., two hours earlier than the third round. Lowry recalled playing in brutal conditions at Royal Portrush alongside Darren Clarke during the third round of the 2012 Irish Open.

“I played in the worst weather you've ever seen,” he said.

A fierce wind could play into the hands of a formidable group of challengers lurking on the leaderboard. The final pairing consists of an Irishman and an Englishman in Northern Ireland. It sounds like the start of a joke, but it pits Lowry and Fleetwood, who shot a bogey-free 66, and is bidding for his first major title, too.

“I feel like I've had some of my best rounds in terrible, terrible conditions, where I've enjoyed grinding it out,” Fleetwood said.

Fellow Englishman Justin Rose is tied for fourth and seven back after a 68, his third consecutive round in the 60s.

“In my situation, you almost need it,” Rose said of the potential for the wind to kick up and the rain to cause havoc. “It offers you a little bit more hope than if it was a benign day. If it was a benign day, I’d probably have to shoot 63 tomorrow.”

Perhaps the name that might throw the biggest scare into Lowry is that of four-time major winner Brooks Koepka, who lamented leaving several strokes on the greens en route to 67 and trailing by seven.

“Easily, it could’ve been 63,” Koepka said. “I don’t think anyone in the field has hit it better than me.”

Koepka can take some solace that at the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, his seven-stroke advantage nearly evaporated in the final round before he won by two.

“I guess if you put it that way,” he said. “In links golf, all of a sudden a couple of bad bounces and you never know.”

And while Koepka has the major-championship pedigree, the likes of J.B. Holmes (six back) Rickie Fowler and Lee Westwood (eight back) and Jon Rahm and Tony Finau (nine back) are attempting to get that first major on their mantel. Lowry is prone to wild hooks off the tee and will have to putt better than he did at the 2016 U.S. Open, when a series of three-putts spoiled his major quest.

“It’s definitely not over yet,” Holmes said. “A lot can happen. You never know with the weather; it can be blowing. I don’t know. There’s a lot of golf left to go.”

If Lowry can continue to ride his magic carpet of support to victory, he would join Padraig Harrington (2007, 2008) as the only British Open champions from the Republic of Ireland.

“He's got great short game; that will stand him in good stead on a tough weather day,” Rose said. “If there is a tough-weather-day player, it probably is him.”

Plus, he will have all of the Irish isle rooting for him to win on home soil. Wouldn’t it be something if he pulled it off?

“Hey, hey Shane Lowry
(Ooh aah)
I wanna know (oh ooh)
If you'll be my girl.”

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak