It’s an Irish day out there now, observed Graeme McDowell, mid-afternoon. He meant the grimly inhospitable weather that blew around Royal Portrush.
Vicious crosswinds, driving rain. God, it was a miserable scene.
Yet on Northern Ireland‘s Causeway coast, grey turned out to be the warmest colour as Shane Lowry held his nerve, seeing off both the chasing pack and the raging elements to become the fourth Irishman to win the Open in 12 years. And every Open win, and every Open winner, is special, of course.
Shane Lowry held his nerve, seeing off both the chasing pack and the raging elements
Yet this felt more so. Lowry is an Irishman and this was a uniquely Irish Open; the first time it had left the mainland since 1951, but surely not the last. Researchers have been conducting questionnaires in the area assessing the economic impact of bringing the Open to this part of the world, but their worthy work is redundant.
There were no downsides in this most joyous of weeks, the triumph of the likeable Lowry giving the 2019 championship the send-off it deserved.
‘People watched golf today that have never watched golf before,’ said the new champion. Certainly, there will not be too many Open winners as thirstily celebrated. Lowry is a man of the south, but golf sees no border on this island, unlike politicians.
Lowry was supported and lauded as if he was born a mile down the road, not in the Irish Midlands. The roar that greeted his arrival on the first tee came straight out of the Ryder Cup playbook.
It was a sound rarely heard on a golf course for an individual combatant, but only added to the drama of the occasion.
It wasn’t just a question of whether the leader could keep his cool, but a local hero needed to stay serene, too. He had all Ireland willing him on; and as Rory McIlroy discovered on Thursday morning, that isn’t always helpful.
‘The last thing you want to do as an Irishman is come up here and miss the cut,’ said Lowry, recalling his crisis of confidence before the competition started. Had he been in the room, McIlroy would have winced.
The Ryder roar, ironically, is what Lowry has set his heart on hearing. When he won €1million in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, he did not talk about winning majors. His ambition, he said, was to qualify for the Ryder Cup team at Whistling Straits in 2020, captained by his friend and countryman Padraig Harrington. He repeated that desire on Sunday, moments after winning his first major.
‘The next year is all about being on that plane,’ Lowry insisted — and by right, not indulgence. His belief is that he needs to make the team by right, because rookies don’t tend to become captain’s picks any more. Equally, as they are close, it will be hard for Harrington to select him without the decision being viewed as favouritism. Lowry doesn’t want to leave his friend open to criticism.
The pair are pals, and often travel together. On one flight, their craft struck severe turbulence. A woman in their row became quite agitated and Harrington used his best psychological techniques to calm her.
‘No plane has ever crashed due to turbulence,’ he advised, soothingly. She seemed to settle. At which point Lowry, who had until then been silent, leaned into the conversation. ‘Of course, there’s always a first time,’ he offered.
‘I could have killed him,’ Harrington recalled. Still he was at the back of the 18th green on Sunday to congratulate his friend; so was McDowell.
Shane Lowry celebrates with the Claret Jug on the 18th green after winning The Open
Not much time for friendly distractions, and certainly no dry wit across 18 drenched holes. At one stage, when the crowd sparked up what sounded like a victory chant, four up with five to play, Lowry positively glowered at this tempting of fate.
He was never in less than total control throughout, however, four up when the day began, and at worst three clear, at best six — but those numbers only look comfortable in hindsight. At the eye of the storm even a five-shot lead appears vanishingly small. A bogey and an eagle on a par five, for instance, and the cushion would be two.
Fortunately for Lowry’s mental well-being, Tommy Fleetwood, his playing partner and challenger, never made a proper fist of putting the pressure on. Meaning Lowry could lap it up, long before the final putt was sunk. Six clear of Fleetwood, eight ahead of third-placed Tony Finau, he was punching and high-fiving caddie Bo Martin even before he set foot on the 18th green.
‘I was so calm coming down the final hole, I couldn’t believe it,’ Lowry said. It was a family affair, too. Wife, dad, mum, aunties and two-year-old Iris, his little shield against disaster.
When he won in Abu Dhabi, Lowry asked his wife, Wendy, to have their daughter, Iris, waiting for him at the back of the last green. He wanted a reason to smile, even if he didn’t win. Then, as now, he ended up with many more than two reasons to be happy.
The 32-year-old Irishman greeted daughter, Iris, and hugged wife, Wendy, after winning
Not least the unforgettable emotion of being an Irish winner in Ireland. Hearing a man giving the winner’s speech in their voice, an Irish-looking man, an Irish-sounding man, one of their own in the modern parlance, was a Gaelic dream come true. It is not a common occurrence, either.
The last man to win the Open in the country of his birth was Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie in 1999; before that, Tony Jacklin in 1969; before that, Reg Whitcombe in 1938. And the fight to get this competition back to Ireland has been so great, this was even more significant than those historical triumphs. It did not figure that an Irishman would win here. Location, location, location, has rarely been a mantra in golf.
‘Look at the names on it,’ said Lowry, eyeing the famous Claret Jug. ‘I can’t believe it’s me. I didn’t even know if I was good enough to win a major this morning.
‘I grew up imagining I was sinking putts to win the Open — it’s always the Open. A year ago, golf wasn’t my friend. I remember playing Carnoustie in the Open a year ago and, after it, I cried. I used to be quite envious when I went to Padraig’s house and saw his Claret Jug on the kitchen table. Now I’ve got one of my own.’
It certainly did not figure that Lowry would tough it out, given some of his darker moments. He was four clear going into the last round of the US Open in 2016 when he was reeled in by Dustin Johnson, an event so crushing it led, ultimately, to the break-up of a nine-year relationship with his caddie, Dermot Byrne, and a spell in the wilderness, falling from 17th to 62nd in the world rankings.
Byrne admitted he was crying so hard the next day, he had to pull the hired car over and missed his flight home from America. He became the collateral damage of Lowry’s slump.
This is what championship golf does. This is why its protagonists talk so much of the importance of family, and not caring about winning, and all the other coping mechanisms they adopt to deal with pressure. Lowry admitted breaking down two days after the US Open defeat — incredibly, he had an ill-timed sponsor’s obligation on the Monday — which is perhaps why he was most excited about waking up with a feeling of elation this morning.
It is an emotion his father, Brendan, an All-Ireland champion Gaelic footballer with Offaly, told him about. Best of all, Brendan said, was waking up next morning and realising what you had achieved. A hangover may be involved, too, of course — not just for Lowry, but the whole country.
Lowry hugged runner-up Tommy Fleetwood (back) who finished six shots behind Lowry
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