Golf

Portrush is adamant: There's only one Shane Lowry

Shane Lowry is applauded after winning the Open Championship at Royal Portrush Golf Club yesterday Picture by PA
Michael McWilliams at Royal Portrush

CRIES of ‘there’s only one Shane Lowry’ and a rousing rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ filled the rain-filled Portrush air yesterday evening as the 148th Open Championship got the winner it deserved.

At the outset, the romantic storyline might have been a victory for Graeme McDowell or Rory McIlroy, but by the halfway point of this huge event it was a big bear of a man from county Offaly who the galleries had taken to their heart.

Lowry, in so many ways an old-fashioned golfer in this era of muscle-bound gym bunnies, out-lasted the rest in what turned into a real ‘survival of the fittest’ affair. All the talk coming through the gates at Royal Portrush yesterday was of weather, and whether.

The clouds overhead gave ominous portents of the stormy forecast for late in the day. Lowry carried a four-stroke lead into the final round after a sparkling 63 in the sunshine on Saturday, and the fans were wondering whether he could hold on for his first Major triumph.

The man himself admitted to thinking exactly the same thing in the restless hours between rounds three and four, having been in this position once before, when he led the 2016 US Open at Oakmont before being overhauled by Dustin Johnson.

“I didn't even know going out this morning if I was good enough to win a major,” he told the assembled press during a humour-filled press conference half-an-hour after sealing his biggest win.

“I knew I was able to put a few days together. I knew I was able to play the golf course. I just went out there and tried to give my best. And look, I'm here now, a major champion. I can't believe I'm saying it, to be honest.”

From Darren Clarke’s opening tee shot and birdie to follow at 6.35am on Thursday, it had been a magical week in Portrush, through Rory McIlroy’s first day meltdown, second day fightback and tears after missing the cut by one, this Open has had it all.

And that’s not to mention the ‘ouching’ Tiger after every shot. Or Graeme McDowell fighting like mad to make it through to the weekend in his hometown. Amidst all the storylines emerged Lowry, relaxed but focussed, the coolest man on the links.

Going into the final round, the affable Tommy Fleetwood was the challenger in chief, with the likes of Brooks Koepka, JB Holmes and Justin Rose in relatively close pursuit. While the huge Koepka strode up the first like a bronzed Finn McCool on a Causeway coast mission, the roars from behind signalled the arrival of Lowry on the first tee.

A missed fairway wasn’t the ideal start and a bogey followed. Crucially, Fleetwood let a good chance for birdie slip by and the gap was three. Sensing the need to pick their man up, the crowd united with a louder scream of ‘come on Shane’ than you’d hear at any Westlife concert.

Shane Lowry celebrates with wife Wendy Honner and their daughter after winning the Claret Jug
Picture by PA

A bogey from Fleetwood at three stretched the advantage to four again and the punters – most of whom seemed to have ‘a few quid each-way' on the leader - went wild when their man made a birdie at the fourth. Lowry and Ardglass caddie Bo Martin suffered a few malfunctions with their umbrella as the rain came on the fifth tee, but the Sunday game has always gone on despite a troublesome Brolly.

Shane picked up another birdie at the most exposed part of the course, and when a third of the day came at the long seventh, the surge of electricity going through a sodden crowd was palpable. The job was almost done, with the various contenders up ahead seeing their hopes disappear on the north coast wind.

Lowry had to dig in with the conditions at their very worst, with four dropped shots in seven holes from the eighth. Nobody else was able to make headway, however, and when a textbook birdie at 15 extended the cushion to six the victory lap had started.

Up went the shouts of ‘Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole’, and he was able to soak up the atmosphere on his long walk to victory, the Claret Jug, and the title of ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’: “Oh, my God. It was amazing,” he said.

“It's hard to believe. It's just hard to believe. I think a lot of people from where I'm from, I spotted a few people in the crowd, and I think a lot of people made the last-minute journey up here this morning because I was leading. And it was just great out there today. It's funny, I sometimes struggle to play in front of the home crowd and have done in the past, but not over the last few days. I played lovely. It's obviously very nice.”

The affection poured down from the massive grandstand around the 18th, while the esteem with which Lowry is held was evidenced by the fact that two other Irish Major winners, McDowell and Padraig Harrington, were waiting behind the green to welcome their friend into the club.

“It was just incredible to walk down 18,” said Lowry.

“The crowd is going wild. Singing ‘Ole, Ole’. I just couldn't believe it was happening to me. And it was nice, very nice of Paddy and Gmac to be standing on the back of the green for me. And obviously to have all my friends and family.

"I spotted my family when I walked around the corner to have a look where the flag was, and I spotted them all at the back of the green. To be honest, I welled up a little bit and Bo told me to catch a hold of myself, I still have to hit a shot. Thankfully I hit a decent shot in there and two-putted.”

With that, the return of the Open to the island of Ireland after a 68-year wait had a fitting champion. Lowry returned to the 18th a short while later to hoist the famous Claret Jug, take the acclaim from the crowd, and realise a childhood dream.

“I'm Irish. I grew up holing putts back home to win The Open. It was always The Open, wasn't it?

“I watched Paddy [Harrington] win his two Opens. I didn't even know him back then. I'm obviously very good friends with him. To have him there on the 18th, like you go into Paddy's house and the Claret Jug is sitting on the kitchen table, and I'm going to have one on my kitchen table as well. I said that to him, that's going to be quite nice.”

Inevitably, thoughts turned to the future, with one question in the press conference wondering whether he can add more big titles: “Jesus, let me enjoy this one first,” said a smiling champion.

“I've got a busy few months ahead of me and I'm very excited. But I'm really going to enjoy this first."

Enjoy it he might after becoming Ireland’s fifth Open champion, joining an elite band of Fred Daly, Harrington, Clarke and McIlroy. But being the first to do it on home soil made it even more special: “This is my eighth Open Championship and it was the best one I've ever played in,” said Lowry.

“The way it was run, the golf course - everybody was raving about the golf course, how good it was. I'd be very surprised if it's not back here in the next 10 years. Portrush have just been incredible. Obviously I've had success here in the past in amateur events. I knew coming up that I liked the place. To be able to win it at home, it’s just very nice.”

Lowry knew he liked Portrush, and the feeling was mutual. Portrush also loved the Open Championship, with a brilliant week having a stunning conclusion. Hopefully we can all do it again a few years from now.

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