Friday 9 December 2016

From Clara to Congressional

This Thursday, Shane Lowry tees it up at his first US Open. Karl MacGinty outlines five things the Irish debutant should embrace or sidestep

Karl MacGinty

Published 13/06/2011 | 05:00

SHANE LOWRY can expect the thrill of a lifetime and a trial by fire this week as he makes his debut in the noisiest and most intimidating arena in golf.

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Lowry (24) will get a heady first taste of the atmosphere and the action at the US Open today when he tees it up with Graeme McDowell for a practice round on the fearsome Blue Course at Congressional Country Club.

Having the reigning champion along to help with the introductions is a privilege that very few US Open rookies enjoy. Lowry explains: "Ah Graeme's great, he's very good to me.

"Obviously we're both part of Horizon (Sports Management) but he's a good friend as well. We're all staying in the same house this week, and stuff."

The US Open buzz started for Lowry from the moment he graduated with honours in second place at European sectional qualifying at Walton Heath, near London, last Monday week.

The Clara man grins as he recalls fellow qualifier Johan Edfors of Sweden shaking his hand and saying excitedly: "The atmosphere at the US Open is unbelievable. It's brilliant, like nothing you've ever experienced before."

Of course, Lowry has already enjoyed high drama on the golf course. Two years ago at Baltray it seemed as if the entire population of Offaly was singing and dancing in the rain after his seismic victory as an amateur at the 2009 Irish Open.

Lowry has matured both as man and golfer in two years as a professional on the European Tour, but his eyes were still wide with anticipation on arrival in Washington DC yesterday as he waited for this week's great adventure to begin.

C'MON FEEL THE NOISE!

LOWRY knows what it's like to perform in front of tens of thousands on Sunday at a Major ... to him, the roar of a packed gallery is pure oxygen.

Ordinary mortals might be intimidated by the thought of facing one of the largest and most raucous audiences in golf at Congressional this week, yet Lowry's an entertainer. He relishes it.

This is his first US Open but it's his third Major and his biggest thrill so far has been walking up 18 at St Andrews late on Sunday evening at the British Open. "Yeah, I'll never forget that," he recalls. "As we walked up that fairway, around 30,000 people were clapping. I turned to Dermot (Byrne, his caddie) and said 'not a bad place to be on a Sunday evening, eh.'

"Even with nobody there, playing St Andrews can give any golfer a chill, it's such a special place. But with all those people there ... for some reason, I just love playing in front of crowds.

"It's like I'm showing off. It honestly feels like I was born to play golf and I just love it when the crowds are there -- the bigger the better. I don't know why."

Edfors was right. Whatever Lowry experienced at the British Open or in front of packed galleries at last year's US PGA at Whistling Straits, the hordes of hard-bitten sports nuts who turn out for the US Open on America's eastern seaboard make it the noisiest Major.

The Swede made his only US Open appearance at Bethpage two years ago, when even torrential rainstorms failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the gloriously garrulous New Yorkers.

And as Colin Montgomerie discovered in 1997 at Congressional, where he was pipped on Sunday by Ernie Els but ripped from Friday onwards by boozed-up spectators, they don't take prisoners in Washington DC either.

No question, each of the Majors has its own feel. There's plenty of noise at the Masters, but 25,000 or so 'patrons' must show etiquette and decorum at all times each day ... or they won't be invited back.

Attendances at the British Open often exceed 45,000 per day but the vast majority are purists. They are noisy and enthusiastic but still are more sanguine than their American cousins.

A notable exception occurred at St Andrews in 2005, when 'a football crowd', as it would quaintly be described, turned up on Saturday to root for Monty and browbeat Tiger as they went head-to-head in the final group.

While huge numbers turn out at the fourth Major, the PGA Championship, it is like the 'US Open Lite' for raw atmosphere.

All of which is music to Lowry's ears as he prepares to make his bow in front of 35,000 vociferous souls each day this week. "I'd like nothing better than to walk up 18 at Congressional late next Sunday," he muses.

ARE THESE THE UNKINDEST PUTTS OF ALL?

THE USGA prides itself on delivering golf's 'ultimate challenge' each June.

There is no let-up at the US Open. It's like Chinese water-torture, a relentless shot-by-shot, hole-by-hole examination of the elite golfer's skill, discipline and mental resolve.

Different philosophies apply elsewhere. At Augusta, the game is meant to be played as a creative art. British Opens are on ancient links which offer a glorious strategic challenge, the severity of which usually is left to Mother Nature.

Professional organisations, the PGA Tour, European Tour and, to a lesser extent, the US PGA, really don't have the heart to savage their colleagues. The Tours will argue that pro golf is entertainment, with birdies and eagles required to keep fans tuned in.

At the US Open, however, par is king and free spirits like Lowry must adopt a different mindset, or go home on Friday.

Those who enjoyed seeing Lowry punch the air in delight after completing a sensational birdie-birdie-eagle finish at Wentworth are unlikely to witness a repeat next Sunday. The US Open doesn't work like that.

In 1997, championship debutant Padraig Harrington described Congressional as "everything I expected a US Open course to be".

Paul McGinley, also making his first US Open appearance that week, found it "fascinating in the demands it places on course management. You'd need a computer to figure out all the factors that must be considered on every hole."

This year, the Blue Course is 361 yards longer; all 18 greens have been changed from poa annua to bentgrass; par of 71 instead of 70; it finishes with a formidable par four instead of a controversial par three and the USGA have softened, slightly, their philosophy on course set-up under Mike Davis in the past five years.

For example, dense rough no longer lies right by the side of the fairway -- it gets deeper and more tangled the wider a player strays. They call it graduated rough.

Meanwhile, several green surrounds at Congressional have been shaved, as Davis explains "to increase the risk reward on certain shots. To allow players gamble a little bit."

That'll suit Lowry, whose go-getter style of play is founded on an excellent short game and his innate ability to recover from missed shots.

Yet the US Open remains much the same. With mind-sapping regularity, this week's 156-man field, whittled down from more than 8,000 entrants of 1.4 handicap or better, repeatedly will endure pressure putts for par.

It's an erosive process. "Holing putts for par isn't easy. It's mentally tough. Grinding like that really can be exhausting," the Clara champion concedes -- especially on greens running up to 14.5 on the stimp, four feet faster than the norm in Europe.

Lowry's keeping his expectations in check. "From what I've heard, every department of your game must be in good working order. So it is the ultimate challenge in golf," he says. "I'll just have to set out with a strategy and stick to it for all four days.

"I'm only 24. It's my first US Open and if I can learn something from the week, it'll stand me in good stead for the next US Open I play. That's the plan at Congressional."

FOR THE HONOUR AND THE GLORY

MONEY'S not a principal motivator at golf's Majors.

The world's elite are drawn by their prestige, not the size of the tournament purse.

This explains why the $7.5m prize fund at all four is lower than that on offer at World Golf Championships and falls $2m shy of the PGA Tour's showpiece, The Players.

Still, it wasn't enough to persuade Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy to go to Sawgrass.

As Padraig Harrington recently said, he'd play a Major on a crutch if necessary, while the decision of Tiger Woods not to play the US Open for the first time since 1995 is viewed as a worrying indicator of the severity of his left knee and Achilles tendon injuries.

However, all four Majors are massive money-makers. The sheer scale of the merchandising and corporate hospitality operation at the US Open is breathtaking and adds significantly to the sense of occasion on site at Congressional.

Taking the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines as an example, ticket sales amounted to $20m, corporate hospitality and merchandising brought in $15m each, with the greatest single amount being $40m from US and international TV rights.

A trifling $5m was made from food and beverage sales ... that alone would be enough to stage the ailing Irish Open with a €3m prize fund.

The USGA netted $50m in profit from that $100m gross revenue. As with the Royal and Ancient, the 'Open Championships' on either side of the Atlantic fund the administration and development of the amateur game.

Tiger's withdrawal last week impacted secondary sales by ticket agencies but not the primary supplier -- the USGA itself expect the event to be a sell-out for the 25th year in a row.

TV ratings, inevitably, will take a hit because of Tiger's absence but the people who feel it most are his fellow players, who thrive on the opportunity to pit their wits against the game's greatest players.

"Yeah. I've always said I find it easier to get myself up for bigger tournaments," Lowry agrees. "I love to be out there playing against the bigger players. I don't know why, it's just something about me but it's not a bad thing to have.

"When you are playing with someone out there, you're trying to beat them as well. For example, I'd a good tussle with Rory on Saturday at Wentworth and he beat me by one, then I beat (Edoardo) Molinari by a few with that finish on Sunday.

"It's good to be out there playing against biggest players in bigger tournaments," he adds. "Hopefully, one day, I'm going to be a big-time player."

WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF FUN

AS soon as Lowry qualified for the US Open, a well-oiled machine went into action on his behalf.

Like many of his fellow European Tour professionals, Lowry is supported by a management company, the up-and-coming Irish firm Horizon.

As a result, he didn't have to go booking flights or looking for accommodation for himself in Washington.

He just packed his bags at the weekend, boarded his flight in Dublin yesterday, arrived in Washington, picked up the luxury Lexus 4x4 given to every US Open competitor this week and headed straight for the six-bedroom house rented by Horizon in Bethesda.

Little more than a mile from the golf course, it will be a home from home this week for Lowry, US Open champion McDowell and his dad, Kenny, Horizon's Conor Ridge and Colin Morrissey and a chef, Bryan Macintosh, brought in from Orlando to keep team Horizon well fed.

If the Majors can be overwhelming for young debutants, Lowry has been afforded the same familiar surrounds at every Major he's played.

For example, the craic was mighty in the house he shared with G-Mac, Ross Fisher and 'special guest' Ian Poulter at Whistling Straits last year, where 'the lads' divided their time between playing tennis on Fisher's Playstation and mucking around at their private beach on Lake Michigan.

"We'd great craic," says Lowry, who also will be supported at Congressional this week by his uncle, Mark, and his "little bro", Alan, while he's heard a sizeable troupe from home might also be making the trip.

Lowry's opportunity to play a practice round with defending champion McDowell today illustrates the world of a difference between Ireland's two-year European Tour 'veteran' and, for example, Texan first-timer Michael Whitehead (23), called-up last week as the replacement for the injured Woods.

Whitehead is just out of college and turned professional just before playing in last week's sectional qualifiers. Like Lowry at the Irish Open two years ago, he'll get his first opportunity on Tour in his national open.

He headed for Washington with his mum and dad, his brother David and fiancee Jordan, their travel and accommodation arrangements hastily made with the help of the relevant US Open department.

This week Lowry is a US Open rookie alright ... but this week he can rely on the back-up, know-how and experience enjoyed by an established Tour professional.

LEAVE SIGHTSEEING TO THE TOURISTS!

IF the US Open enjoyed a breathtaking Pacific Ocean backdrop at Pebble Beach last June, its venue this year is on the doorstep of Washington DC, the ever-vibrant, cosmopolitan and alluring capital of the United States.

Yet, you won't find Lowry or, for that matter, many of his fellow professionals among the hordes of sightseers wandering around Capitol Hill or gawping through the railings at the White House.

Some professionals like to stop and 'smell the roses' at particular Tour stops. Harrington will always bring his family on a pilgrimage to Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley, when in Memphis for the St Jude Classic. He believes it to be "the best tourist attraction in America".

The focus of the majority of tournament golfers, however, is on the job, especially at the Majors. As Conor Ridge of Horizon says: "The guys are so intense and focused on their week's work, all they'll see is the house or hotel they're staying in, the practice range and the golf course.

"Sometimes they may go out to a restaurant but we have a chef with us this week to take care of the cooking because the demands of competing in a Major championship leave most players drained by the end of the day."

The only time Lowry is likely to see the Capitol Building this week is on the US Open logo or from an aeroplane window. "Maybe it's because I'm young, but I've no interest in seeing the cities or anything like that," he says emphatically.

"When I go to a golf tournament, I'm totally focused on getting ready for the event and playing in it -- nothing else. This is a job and I'm not going to take a half day off to visit the Eiffel Tower or whatever. I'd rather spend an hour chipping and putting than do that."

Yet Lowry fervently hopes to go home from Congressional next Sunday with precious memories of his first US Open!

Irish Independent

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