Shane Lowry shines in historic year for Irish golf
For one week in July, the eyes of the sporting world were trained on a small corner of the north Antrim coast.
For the first time since 1951, the Open Championship returned to Irish shores, with Royal Portrush given the honour of hosting the most famous competition in golf.
With bated breath, all of those involved waited to see whether the Dunluce course could stand up to the challenge of seeing the world's best attempt to tear it apart.
We need not have worried as for four days – in turns stormy, sunny, summery and soaked – Portrush put forward an Open Championship for the ages, one that had narratives by the bucket-load and a winner who could barely have been more popular.
Before the first ball was struck on a glorious Thursday morning – by Portrush resident Darren Clarke – the dream scenario for the galleries pouring through the gates was a Rory McIlroy success, perhaps closely followed by a second Major for Graeme McDowell, who had to scrap throughout the first half of 2019 to capture a place in the field on the turf where he learnt to swing a club.
However, by the end of round one – perhaps even hole one – McIlroy's hopes were in tatters. A quadruple bogey on the first was followed by an afternoon of toil and trouble, with a finish almost as disastrous as his start seeing him sign for a seven-over 79.
A miracle was required on the second day, and it very nearly transpired as the Holywood man, roared on by unashamedly partisan crowds, produced a stunning round, his breathtaking 65 leaving him a shot outside the halfway cut.
As McIlroy spoke to the media after a tournament that was more of a rollercoaster than anything Barry's amusements has to offer, tears were never far from his eyes.
On Friday evening, he headed to the exit, not to return, and with Tiger Woods failing miserably to hang around for the weekend, the party threatened to turn into something of a damp squib.
But from the debris emerged the hero of the hour, and the third day's play offered up one of the great Irish sporting performances, as Shane Lowry stepped up and then strode away from a star-studded field, holing putts from everywhere en route to a stellar 63.
The roars could have been heard across the sea in the Open's spiritual home of Scotland as the Offaly man took the firmest of grips on the championship, the sun-kissed skies providing a perfect backdrop for the millions watching on TV.
Lowry carried a four-shot lead over Tommy Fleetwood into the fourth round, but with high winds, rain and a perilous golf course to deal with, little was assured.
Despite a couple of early wobbles, the Clara native cut a composed figure as his challengers saw their hopes carried away on the gusts coming in from the Atlantic.
By the time he strode down the 18th fairway, the job was done and Lowry could savour his first Major victory before hoisting the Claret Jug to emotional acclaim from all and sundry.
“I didn't even know going out this morning if I was good enough to win a Major,” said an emotional Open champion.
“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.”
And winning on home soil made it all the more special for the proudest of Irishmen.
“This is my eighth Open Championship and it was the best one I've ever played in,” he said.
“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. To be able to win it at home, it's just very nice.”
The Open will return to Portrush in the coming years, but it will have to produce something extra-special to top the 2019 renewal.
Lowry's victory brought the curtain down on the Major season, with a revamped calendar seeing a condensed schedule over the spring and early summer.
The traditional curtain-raiser, The Masters at Augusta, was hardly short of emotion either as Tiger Woods rolled back the years to claim his fifth Green Jacket, and 15th Major in all, almost 11 years after his previous victory in one of the game's biggest events.
Woods (below) made the most of a collapse from Francesco Molinari to hit the front at just the right time – on the back nine of a Major Sunday – to win by one from Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele.
After a decade of personal problems and endless injuries, Woods was blown away to be back at the top table of the game he once dominated.
“To come back here and play as well as I did has meant so much to me and my family – this tournament, and to have everyone here is something I'll never forget,” he said.
Koepka – dubbed the ‘new Tiger' by many – was not to be denied his fourth Major success for long, and he strolled through the first three days of the US PGA at Bethpage Black in New York like a golfing robot.
A few malfunctions during the final round let Johnson back into the mix, but Koepka and Portrush-born caddie Ricky Elliott made the necessary tweaks to win a second Wanamaker Trophy in three seasons.
A month later, America's Gary Woodland held off Koepka, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose at Pebble Beach to claim his first Major at the US Open, while McIlroy recorded a share for ninth without ever truly challenging.
Rory had arrived on the Monterey Peninsula as favourite after a typically swashbuckling success at the RBC Canadian Open, a second victory of what will ultimately be viewed as a highly satisfactory 2019, even if a fifth Major eluded him.
Then again, he did win ‘the fifth Major', the Players Championship at Sawgrass in March while, just five weeks after leaving Portrush in tears, McIlroy was hoisting the FedEx Cup aloft on the back of a superb Tour Championship victory in Atlanta, when the best 30 players on the PGA Tour were put to the sword in ruthless fashion.
That win led to McIlroy being named Player of the Year in the States ahead of Koepka, the man the rest of the elite are hunting down at the top of the world rankings.
The seal was put on a very lucrative year for McIlroy when he claimed a play-off victory over Schauffele in the WGC-HSBC Champions event in Shanghai, meaning he matched a career-best of four wins in a year and climbed back up to second in the rankings from eighth at the start of 2019.
Of course, such are the standards he set early in his career that no season can be regarded as a totally successful one without a Major triumph, but the man himself was happy enough with how things went.
“It's been a learning year. I've learnt some things I want to take forward into next year,” he said.
“There's been a lot of good golf played, probably some of my most consistent golf – and I've got four wins.”
McIlroy wasn't the only Irishman to taste success on the PGA Tour, with McDowell (below) capturing a first title in over three years at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in Dominican Republic.
Things went a little quiet – perhaps understandably – after the high of playing in the Open in his home town, but there are enough signs to suggest that, at 40, ‘Gmac' may still have victory or two to come.
Jon Rahm is fast becoming an honorary Irishman and he claimed his second Irish Open in July, surging through the field on the final day in Lahinch to add to his 2017 win at Portstewart.
That proved a perfect launchpad for Race to Dubai glory, and the big Spaniard is sure to be a force to be reckoned with worldwide in 2020.
The new year will also see two new faces on the European Tour from these shores, with Ardglass man Cormac Sharvin and Bangor's Jonathan Caldwell earning their cards, although that good news was off-set somewhat with Gavin Moynihan and Paul Dunne, just two years after holding off McIlroy to win the British Masters, losing their full playing rights.
There is plenty to get excited about in the 12 months ahead, with McIlroy sure to be a powerful force at the top of the game and Lowry hopeful of establishing himself even further amongst the elite.
The pair are highly likely to team up at the Olympics in Japan, and both will be massively keen to be part of the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin come September, particularly with compatriot Padraig Harrington at the European helm.
It promises to be an eventful year, although it will have to go some to match 2019, especially one glorious week on the north coast in July.