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Lowry unites Irish isle with Claret Jug

A year ago, Shane Lowry sat in his car and cried in the players’ parking lot at Carnoustie after shooting a 74 in the opening round of the British Open

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – A year ago, Shane Lowry sat in his car and cried in the players’ parking lot at Carnoustie after shooting a 74 in the opening round of the British Open. He had sacked his caddie of nine years, and his game appeared to be in steep decline. He was on the verge of losing his PGA Tour card, and his fall felt swift, spiraling and seemingly irreversible.

One year later, he marched toward the horseshoe of seats towering around the 18th green at the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush in carefree fashion with an insurmountable lead at the 148th British Open. Cheers of “Ole, Ole, Ole” from the grandstand for the unexpected gift he had given the local faithful reverberated throughout the resort town as he dodged raindrops and basked in a glorious late-afternoon champion's walk (scores).

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Ireland’s Shane Lowry, leading by 6 strokes on the final hole, celebrates early with caddie Brian Martin as they walk the 18th fairway Sunday at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

© GOLFFILE/DAVID LLOYD
Ireland’s Shane Lowry, leading by 6 strokes on the final hole, embraces caddie Brian Martin as they triumphantly stroll the 18th fairway Sunday at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

“That just shows how fickle golf is,” said Lowry, who became the fifth Irish player to lift the Claret Jug, after Fred Daly (1947), Padraig Harrington (2007, 2008), Darren Clarke (2011) and Rory McIlroy (2014).

The 32-year-old Lowry withstood lashing rain and gusting winds to shoot a final-round 1-over 72 for a six-stroke victory over Englishman Tommy Fleetwood and claim his first major title. In doing so, he exorcised the demons of blowing a four-stroke lead heading into the final round of the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

“I supposed I didn’t even know going out this morning if I was good enough to win a major,” Lowry said.

Shane Lowry
Ireland’s Shane Lowry rejoices with the Claret Jug after his 6-stroke victory Sunday in the 148th British Open at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

The son of a famed Gaelic footballer, Lowry took to golf at a young age and learned the game at Esker Hills Golf Club, near Tullamore, just west of Dublin. He won the 2008 North of Ireland Amateur Championship at Royal Portrush, and started to think that he could make a career as a professional golfer. When reminded by a reporter that he’d beaten a friend of his in the final, Lowry smiled and said, “I couldn’t stop thinking about him all week because he shanked his tee shot out of bounds on the first. That’s all I could think about on the first hole. He’s going to kill me for that.”

Lowry always showed great promise. Instructor Pete Cowen recalled the time he went to the Irish Boys training and was asked to name the players that he liked. Rory McIlroy was an obvious choice, but he wasn’t the only golfer he picked out of the lot.

“That slightly overweight kid with the glasses on,” Cowen said of a young Lowry, “he looks good.”

Lowry proved to be as good as advertised, gate-crashing onto the European Tour by winning the 2009 Irish Open as an amateur. He turned pro the next week and, despite three European Tour victories and one on the PGA Tour before Sunday, had lived in the oversized shadow of Rory McIlroy and to a lesser extent fellow major champions from the Emerald Isle Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell.

“I used to curse them an awful lot in the past because that’s all anybody wanted to know about in Ireland because they were winning so many majors,” Lowry said. “When are you going to win one? Winning regular events wasn’t good enough for anyone.”

Losing his PGA Tour card last season was a wakeup call. He limped home and rebuilt his game and, more importantly, his confidence on the European Tour. He began this year by capturing the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, his first victory since the 2015 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio.

“He remembered who he was again,” McDowell said. “Losing his card was the best thing that ever happened to him.”

Yet, Lowry entered the week as the forgotten Irishman. Home is four hours south, across the invisible border in the Republic of Ireland. If the two countries’ relationship status were to be posted on Facebook, it would check “It’s complicated.” McIlroy, Northern Ireland’s favorite son, was supposed to write the fairytale story of lifting the Claret Jug on Sunday. Ahead of the Open, even Lowry doubted that he had a week like this one in him. Negative thoughts swirled in his head.

“The last thing you want to do is come up here and miss the cut,” he said. “And that was kind of in my mind.”

On the eve of the Open, an afternoon storm canceled his plans to practice, so he went to the nearby Bushmills Inn for a coffee and chat with his coach, Neil Manchip. The pep talk did wonders for Lowry’s psyche.

“I really felt like I could go out and perform to the best of my ability the next day,” he said.

After a pair of 67s, Lowry took advantage Saturday when the wind laid down and Royal Portrush proved defenseless. He attacked flags and came home in 30 in setting the course record of 63. That proved to be the calm before the storm as conditions worsened into what McDowell called “Portrush Armageddon.” Nobody in the last 12 games managed to break par, and 36-hole co-leader J.B. Holmes ballooned to 87.

Lowry entered the final round with the same four-stroke cushion that he held at the 2016 U.S. Open. This time, he encountered his biggest test at the first hole when he faced an 8-foot putt for bogey and Fleetwood, his closest competitor, had 6 feet for birdie. It could’ve been a three-stroke swing, but Lowry drilled his putt and Fleetwood misfired.

“It was probably the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt on a golf course,” Lowry conceded. “That settled me an awful lot.”

Lowry popped his umbrella on the 5th tee and added a rainsuit one hole later. Birdies at Nos. 4, 5, and 7 before the worst of the rain was offset by a stretch of three bogeys in a four-hole stretch, at Nos. 8, 9 and 11. But no one was able to exert any pressure. Brooks Koepka opened with four consecutive bogeys and was never a factor, Justin Rose went out in 41 and Fleetwood's putter misbehaved. Lowry did what he needed to do, and the Romp in the Rain was on.

Lowry’s tidy short game proved to be the difference. McDowell calls Lowry the best chipper he has ever seen, apart from Phil Mickelson.

“I laugh and giggle because he throws balls down on the fringe and hits his lob wedge all day and I think, What’s this guy doing? I found out this weekend what he’s doing. He was preparing himself for when he needs to hit that shot under pressure with a chance to win,” McDowell said.

After Fleetwood doubled the 14th hole to fall five strokes behind, the outcome was a mere formality. The engraver went to work as soon as Lowry’s tee shot at 17 avoided trouble.

Northern Ireland had waited 68 years for the Open to return to its shores, and the nation was rewarded with a “champion golfer of the year” from the Irish isle. While it may be too simple to say that the rousing success of the Open at Portrush closed the book on the period of conflict known as The Troubles, Lowry’s victory united a divided island and gave it a reason to celebrate. McDowell joked that there may not be enough Guinness on the island for a party that is expected to last for some time.

Said McDowell: "Portrush could be messy later."

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