Emotional return for Irish Open hero Lowry
IT was the wettest, wildest and most wonderful day in Irish Open history.
Memories of that special Sunday, when plain Shane Lowry from Clara, Co Offaly, brought the Croke Park roar to golf, will be refreshed next week in Killarney as he defends his '3' Irish Open title.
Lowry now is vastly changed from the 22-year-old amateur who sparked a glorious conflagration in his home county and made headlines around the globe with his astonishing victory at Baltray. Forget Francis Ouimet. To Irish eyes, Lowry's win in his first appearance at his national open was 'The Greatest Story Ever Told'.
Except Sheridan or Spielberg must wait a decade or more for the career of this young Irishman to come to its climax...the tale of Shane Lowry, world golfer, had only just begun that weekend at Co Louth.
The cheers were still echoing around Esker Hills when Lowry turned professional, plunging in at the Tour's deep end a fortnight later at The European Open at The London Club.
This decision, taken in consultation with his dad Brendan, an All-Ireland football legend with Offaly, mum Bridget and coach Neil Manchip, was inspired.
Lowry could have marked time, spending four cozy months at home as the hero waiting for last September's Walker Cup. Instead, he took on the greatest challenge of his young life.
Though victory at Baltray brought with it the guarantee of a Tour card until the end of 2011 and a measure of respect from Europe's professionals, it takes time for any newcomer to find comfort and true acceptance among the game's elite.
Almost inevitably, Lowry missed the cut in his first three tournaments as a pro and, ludicrously, some of those who'd cheered loudest began to whisper.
Yet he'd silence them all, making that important first breakthrough to the weekend at the French Open. With his grip on the ladder firm, Lowry then began the steady climb which has brought him up to World No 79 today.
With just over €600,000 earned in 36 events across four continents over the past 14 months, Lowry has a confident spring in his step as he heads for Killarney.
"At first, it did take me time to find my feet," Lowry admits. "But that feels almost like a lifetime ago. Now I know I belong out here."
That's certainly how it looked at St Andrews last week as Lowry strode with confidence onto the greatest stage of them all, The British Open at The Old Course, receiving loud endorsement from the vast crowds around the 18th green as he regaled them with magnificent birdies on all four days.
Lowry's first-round 68 -- though overshadowed by Rory McIlroy's record 63 -- was a remarkable effort by a young man making his Major Championship debut and, were it not for a couple of strokes of misfortune on Sunday, he'd have finished far higher than 37th.
Yet one shot at St Andrews last weekend summed up the rare gift this young golfer has been given. Indeed, had it been struck by Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, it would be a candidate for 'Shot of the Season'. Yet the TV cameras were pointed elsewhere when Lowry produced a true stroke of genius at 17 last Saturday.
From a prohibitively tight lie, he hit an exquisite, full-blooded flop shot high over the infamous Road Hole bunker, landing his ball softly within two feet of the pin. "It's probably the best chip shot I've ever seen in my life," said Dermot Byrne (34) Lowry's caddie and on Tour since his teens. "I told Shane it was the sort of stuff I should be paying to watch.
"Get it wrong, and he was going to hit it over the wall and out of bounds. It was high risk and very few players would have taken it on. To be honest, I've never seen anyone who chips the ball better than Shane -- and I've seen a few."
Confirmation of this came from Ryder Cup star Robert Karlsson, who played with Lowry last Sunday and several times before. "Shane's all-round game is good, it's solid, but his chipping is unbelievable. It's fantastic," said the Swede.
When Karlsson saw Lowry hole out from over the back of the 11th green last Sunday, he exclaimed: "Wow, that's the best chip I've seen." To which both Irishmen responded in unison: "You didn't see the one at 17 yesterday".
The progress made by Lowry, his caddie says, are best measured in his confidence to attempt the impossible and "show off" his talent on the biggest stage. "Sometimes out there, you're afraid to make a mistake. You're afraid to be unbelievable, if you known what I mean," he says.
Since he started working with Lowry last July, Byrne has been thrilled by his worth ethic, which matches that of Padraig Harrington. "I said that to Padraig's caddie Ronan Flood only the other day in Lough Erne. Shane's prepared to work at it from bright to dark and because of that, he's now playing more like a professional golfer.
"He's 23, but his golf is far older. He's also more mature than 23. Shane's an intelligent fellow and you can tell he comes from a sporting background by the way he responds to criticism or advice. He's able to handle anything you throw at him," Byrne says.
"It's great that all his hard work has been yielding results. He should just keep on doing what he's doing. He's the type of fellow who doesn't need a lot of coaching.
"He goes out and plays with his heart on his sleeve and when it's on, it's unbelievable. He's making huge strides but, believe me, there's a lot more to come. So far, we've only scratched the surface."
Lowry's relishing the prospect of defending his title in front of packed galleries at Killarney. "To be honest," he says. "I don't know what next week will bring because I've never defended at a tournament before.
"I suppose I'll go down and treat it as I would any other Tour event. I'll work as hard and prepare as well as I usually do. Whether I end up with a missed cut or a win, I can only do my best. Yet I can't wait to stand on that first tee on Thursday. As a professional golfer, that's the only place you want to be, performing in front of big crowds."
Lowry truly is a young man in his element.