Sport Golf

Monday 26 June 2017

The art of staying grounded when your career takes off

Shane Lowry takes Brian Jaffray on a tour through the highs and lows of his first year as a pro

One year later. One year from all the mayhem on the 18th green in Baltray. One year on and the Shane Lowry story just gets better.

The last of the 15 golfers from Armagh have just teed off. This is their second round at Esker Hills. A year ago, they never knew the place existed. Club president Donal Molloy is outside with the builders. The clubhouse has been upgraded. Spanking new changing rooms have been installed. New showers and toilets have been fitted. Lowry's success has rejuvenated the place.

The gleaming crystal 3 Irish Open trophy takes pride of place in the mahogany cabinet beside the television. A year ago, there was only dust. A private plane has been put at the champion's disposal so he can jet in to play some golf with JP McManus and Tiger Woods. A year ago he was playing in the club mixed foursomes with his girlfriend Deirdre Molloy.

His bank balance is better by over €400,000. A year ago, he would rummage through his back pocket and be grateful to find a tenner.

Remember where you were this very Sunday afternoon last year? Go on have a go. Remember it was a horrible day. Lashing rain, howling winds. A typical May day in Ireland, you might say.

Remember when you dropped your Sunday papers and averted your gaze towards the television in the corner? Remember the young lad from Clara, his caddy 'Shaper' and all those crazy Biffos? Remember your man on Sky giving out about his bad language?

And if you were out for your Sunday afternoon drive you must remember Greg Allen and Gary Moran beside themselves when they called the dramatic three-hole play-off with Robert Rock.

The day has gone down in golfing history. The day a young amateur from a little family-owned club in Offaly rewrote the record books and won the 3 Irish Open.

* * * * *

He arrives at Esker Hills. The designer trousers are complemented by soft leather Italian shoes. A year ago, he was in jeans and sneakers.

Lowry pours himself a mug of tea. Fine china cups are not his style. He's no flash Harry. He's not doing anything special today to mark the anniversary. His mates might meet in Clara and reminisce about that magical weekend last year. Not Shane.

He will drive to Deirdre's parents' home on the Arden Road in Tullamore and they might go out for a bit of lunch. They might go to the movies. They might just go for a walk. They might even head out to Esker Hills, pick up a buggy and play a few holes. Depends on the mood.

"It was a great time for me but a year on I'm working to get that next win. It's a significant milestone in my life and I acknowledge it, but I've moved on. It's good to look back, but that's history now," he says.

Tomorrow, he'll make the journey back to Baltray for a sponsor's day. A year ago, it was the homecoming party. It's all part of the job.

The Esker Hills clubhouse is dotted with memories of those four glorious days in Co Louth. On the wall is that iconic photograph of him leaping in the air after sinking the winning putt. The fluorescent green tee shirt that he wore under the rain gear is framed. His signature is beginning to show signs of fading. A 'Welcome Home Shane, the 3 Irish Open Champion' poster made by the members greets you in the reception area. Treasured memories of his Irish Open odyssey.

There are many magical moments etched in time. Rory McIlroy, shoulder to shoulder with all the Offaly people, offering words of encouragement for Shane at the 18th green. Taoiseach Brian Cowen embracing his fellow Clara native and McIlroy spraying that bottle of grand crus champagne over the new champion.

"You've loads of brilliant memories. All the crowds from Offaly, all the mayhem but Rory was great. Obviously it was a disappointing week for him finishing down the field. He's only one hour up the road in Belfast. He could have driven home and not hang around in the lashing rain. Instead, he waited for a couple of hours. That's something I'll always remember and will also be grateful for."

They have been great friends since their amateur days and their bond of friendship has been cemented even more over the past year. When they are away on Tour, they eat together, practise together and hang out together.

Lowry was the first person to talk to McIlroy on the phone after his stunning victory at the Quail Hollow championship on the PGA Tour. "Remember when Rory told David Feherty on live TV he was going to call his parents once the interview was over? Well, before he managed to contact them I got through to him. I was in Dublin Airport, just back from Seville when I got a text to say Rory had won. I called him straight away. I was absolutely delighted for him as he was under severe pressure since the Masters and to go out and shoot 62 and win in the style he did shut the critics up."

Lowry's decision to turn professional was a no-brainer. The carrot of a place on the GB & I Walker Cup team was dangled but after his heroics at Baltray it was never a runner. He weighed up his options with his parents Brendan and Bridget. He also talked to his long-time friend and GUI national coach Neil Manchip. He aligned himself to an Irish management company, Horizon Sports, and seven days after his victory, Lowry was again facing the international media, but this time he was holding court as a professional golfer.

Lowry's first shot in the paid ranks was in the European Open. Paul McGinley and Anthony Wall were there to witness his drive at the first at the London Golf Club in Kent. The spotlight was on him and he buckled.

His opening round 78 was followed by a 73. He was back in Clara by nightfall. Missed cuts were to follow at Celtic Manor and Munich. Three tournaments played and three weekends off. It wasn't meant to be like this. The doubters and the critics began to surface. The victory in Baltray was a once-off.

"I can't ever remember doubting myself . The people I had around me kept on telling that I was not out of my depth. Conor Ridge [Horizon Sports] was very good at the start, keeping me very positive."

Lowry was under pressure and his parents decided to accompany him to Paris for the Open de France. There was a €4m-plus pot and the big boys were in town. "That first cut in France was huge. It was a really big deal to make it as you had people saying I should have stayed amateur. There were constant comparisons with Justin Rose in the media. Making the cut in Paris was a relief but following it up in Loch Lomond was equally pleasing as it put the Justin Rose tag to bed once and for all."

Loch Lomond also signalled the end of his player-caddy relationship with Dave Reynolds. For over two years, Lowry and 'Shaper', both sons of Clara, had been a team, a very successful team travelling the length and breadth of Ireland on the amateur circuit. Co Wicklow bagman Dermot Byrne was brought on board.

"Replacing Shaper was the hardest thing I've ever done. Dave has been a very good friend and was with me on the amateur circuit but it was something I had to do really. It was a tough decision. It was a business decision."

Although they gave each other a wide berth for a few days after Scotland, it was hard to keep avoiding each other in such as small provincial town where they are both members of the same club. The eventually sat down, man to man, in private. "Myself and Shaper talked things out. I told him the reasoning behind my move. Dave Reynolds played a massive part in the greatest moment of my life and that can never be taken from him."

Months later, the pair drew a line in the sand in public at a function. The D E Williams Suite is the largest function room in the Tullamore Court Hotel and more than 450 people gathered there on the Monday night after Christmas to celebrate Lowry's victory in the Irish Open. The function was hosted by members of Esker Hills and Dave Reynolds sat at the back of the room as television monitors played a video loop of those dramatic moments in Baltray. There he was on the screen, carrying the black and white bag, holding the umbrella, lining up putts, calmness personified.

At the top table, Brian Cowen was in discussion with Lowry. GUI president PJ Collins was hanging on every word. It was Shane Lowry's night. But there was a surprise in store. When Lowry took the microphone he thanked all who needed to be thanked but then he welled up. He talked about the Shaper and about how much he owed his Irish Open success to him. He called Shaper to the stage and presented him with a framed picture of their moment of triumph. He also gave him the flag from the 18th hole at Baltray. The two embraced.

"That was my idea. I wanted to acknowledge Shaper. What went on is all history. There's no hard feelings."

He's moved on. Shaper has moved on. No hard feelings.

Lowry's new bagman has turned out to be a tough task master and it's no coincidence or luck that his game has improved immeasurably over the past 12 months. "I think the improvements I've made since I changed caddy, and it's no disrespect to Dave whatsoever, have a lot to do with Dermot.

"If I'm not doing something right, he'll say to me: 'this is not good enough. You'll have to work at it'. And that's how I've changed my game. And when he started caddying for me he said we have a lot of things to work on. We did work hard. If I miss a cut, all I want to do is go home on a Friday evening but he'll say 'we're going nowhere. We have a bonus of two days of practice'."

Together they have crossed the globe. America, the Middle East, Asia, South Africa and throughout Europe. A year ago, read Rosses Point, Enniscrone, Royal Dublin, Lahinch and Royal Co Down.

The week in Ohio at the World Golf Championship was Lowry's first taste of the big time and Deirdre went along to share the experience. He was handed the keys of courtesy car for the week. He was treated just the same as Tiger, Phil, Ernie and Pádraig.

"The Bridgestone was memorable. Just seeing all these players I normally watch on TV in the same locker room. At one stage, I looked over at the fairway adjacent to me and Phil Mickelson was taking a shot. Maybe looking back on it now I might have been overawed but I think I've shown how much I've improved between Ohio and the other World Golf Championship event in Shanghai where I had a chance of doing really well.

"I had a bad back nine on Sunday but I was up there at the top of the leaderboard and I showed I was definitely not out of place in that company. I didn't see too much of Tiger during the week in Ohio as we had opposite tee times and he was doing well and I was out early on Saturday and Sunday," he laughs.

Lowry will have ample opportunity to acquaint himself with Woods when he plays at the JP McManus Pro Am in Adare Manor in July. "JP is sending his private jet to Paris to pick up a few of us on the Sunday and fly us to Shannon for the Pro-Am and he's flying us back to Loch Lomond on the Wednesday. That's something I'm looking forward to. It should be a great few days."

Lowry's home fans' only other chance to see him in action will be the 3 Irish Open in Killarney when he defends his title. That's another week that can't come quickly enough. "There's a huge crowd planning to travel down from Esker Hills for that. It's a massive tournament and having it over the August Bank Holiday weekend is going to be huge. From talking to the lads on Tour, they are looking forward to Killarney. Only last week I was driving past and pulled in to see the course. It's a lovely setting there with the lakes and the mountains as a backdrop. If we get the weather there won't be a better place in the world to play golf."

Lowry plans to rent a house in Killarney where his Mam and Dad will be joined by his sister Sinéad and younger brother Alan. His family means the world to him. During his amateur days, they made plenty of sacrifices. When Shane needed a car, they did without. They insisted he stay in a hotel rather than a bed and breakfast when he travelled around Ireland in search of GUI championships. He brought them over to Dubai when the rest of Ireland was submerged in snow.

"It's great that I'm in a position to be able to bring them to places like Dubai. It's my way of showing how much I appreciate what they've done for me."

He is generous to those who are close to him and likes them to share in his success. His schoolboy friend Noel Egan lived the high life with him during the recent Open de Espana in Seville while his former sparring partner in the amateur ranks, Dara Lernihan from the Castle Golf Club, is travelling with Lowry to Spain for the Madrid Masters. And his girlfriend will be with him next weekend in Wentworth.

Although he now mingles with the rich and famous in first-class lounges and wants for nothing, Clara is home. He feels most comfortable among his own folk and friends at Esker Hills. Has success changed him? "I hope not and would like to think not. I'm the same guy I was last year. People have been very supportive and I don't think anyone begrudges me my success. I would be upset if people thought I've changed. I am still one of the lads. We still have a few pints and the craic when I'm home."

When he turned professional, Lowry was in the Outer Hebrides of the world rankings at 168. After his last tournament in Seville, he was sandwiched between Davis Love and Fred Couples at 91. He's on target for the Race to Dubai and is just outside the top 50. There's big money and points on offer over the next few months.

"Looking back on my year, I don't think I've any regrets. I think I've done well. Along with my coach Neil Manchip and fitness coach Eric Miller I've put a lot of hard work in over the last six to eight months. I think I'm getting the rewards now. Any week I go out now I genuinely believe that I can win."

On Tuesday morning, Lowry will travel down Wentworth Drive in the Surrey stockbroker belt. He won't be fazed by his salubrious surroundings. He'll be there for the flagship event on the European Tour. The best golfers in Europe will all be there. Here he will be greeted by Poulter, Westwood, Els and Casey. Four of the world's top ten. A year ago, they had never heard of him. A year later and he's one of their own. Some story, some year.

The 3 Irish Open takes place at the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club from July 29-Aug 1. Tickets can be purchased from www.ticketmaster.ie or www.europeantour.com-/tickets. More information on the 3 Irish Open can be found on www.3golf.ie

Sunday Independent

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