One year after his broken wrist, Shane Lowry tells Dermot Gilleece things are looking brighter
It WAs a different sort of Christmas for Clara's leading sportsman. Instead of fretting about the future with a wrist in plaster as at the end of 2010, Shane Lowry could savour the holiday season with family and friends while looking towards the forthcoming schedule as a highly respected competitor on tour.
Now, with his preparations complete, delivery time has arrived. And unlike last year when it was March before his season could get under way, Lowry goes into action in elite company in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, starting on Thursday.
We met last week at his new residence at Carton House, where he has been appointed their touring professional. A spacious dormer looking out on the first green of the O'Meara Course and the iconic outline of an ancient water-tower beyond, the house has a suitably rural feel to it, framed by towering beech and cedar trees.
"I like it here, especially the fact that it's only 40 minutes from my parents' home in Clara," he said. Though a visit to the dentist that morning had left him feeling somewhat fragile, the mood regarding his golf was decidedly upbeat. He even forced a smile about his least favourite subject.
When I suggested he had the physique of "a guy who's comfortable," he knew exactly what I meant. "That's a nice way to put it," he said with a half-smile. Then, with no great conviction, he went on: "I do a bit of gym work, though you mightn't think it." There was a pause. "I don't really like answering this question. It's kind of . . ."
When I assured him that his coach Neil Manchip was on his side where this particular issue was concerned, he became less defensive. "I've spoken about it quite a lot to Neil and Conor [Conor Ridge, of Lowry's management group, Horizon Sports]. You ask yourself 'right, are you fit enough to play four weeks in a row and not be tired on the Sunday evening of the fourth week, if you happen to be going down the stretch?' And I feel I am.
"I just don't want to change. I'm happy in my own skin. I've seen lads before who lose loads of weight, you know, then lose their golf game. And I think my golf game is good enough the way it is now and I don't want to be changing things."
When I raised the subject with Manchip, who works with Lowry at the GUI's academy at Carton, he said: "We all come in different shapes and sizes and Shane's very fit and healthy for playing golf."
It would seem foolhardy to question Lowry's attitude after a truly remarkable golfing year in which his mental strength matched his broad range of playing skills. Memories remain painful of Christmas Eve 2010 when the wrist he had thought was only sprained in a fall on ice proved to be broken.
"Finding out about it when I did, made it a tough enough Christmas," he recalled. "My da was very good in that regard, like telling me that there was very little I could do about it except to focus on getting back. I didn't quite realise just how tough it was going to be until my first three tournaments last March when I really struggled."
A major concern had to be the knowledge that the exemption he gained from winning the 2009 Irish Open as an amateur ended after last season. Which meant he had to secure his own playing rights for 2012. The fact that he did so from a position of 41st in the Order of Merit with earnings of €764,778 was a huge achievement.
In those comeback events 10 months ago, he missed all three cuts and was 32-over par for the six rounds played. Then the fighting qualities, which characterised his amateur career, surged to the fore. He was 17-under par for 16 rounds in the next four tournaments and effectively went on to secure his card for this year by finishing fourth in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth for prize money of €191,100.
A month later, he broke new ground with a US Open debut at Congressional where, after rounds of 72 and 76, he felt he might have made the cut but for the way Rory McIlroy's dominance affected the 10-shot rule.
Back in Europe, solid performances continued until he completed the season in sparkling form with finishes of fourth, 13th and eighth in the Andalucia Masters, Singapore and Dubai World Championship respectively. Those three events delivered prize money of €356,400, ensuring a very different Christmas from 2010.
"Shane's development has been a natural process involving subtle changes but nothing dramatic," said Manchip, who observed every stroke the player hit on that epic Irish Open adventure at Baltray. "As an amateur, he proved he could win and as a professional, he has tended to make the most of opportunities as they present themselves."
Manchip added: "If I was to sum up Shane's talent, it is that he has a terrific capacity to play his own game. Blessed with the ability to handle every shot imaginable, he gets in his own way far less than most players do."
For his own part, Lowry stubbornly refuses to set himself targets. Or if he does, he won't talk about them. Making the Ryder Cup team, for instance, would be "getting very far ahead of myself." Like Pádraig Harrington, he believes he must first get into WGC events to have any chance of qualifying.
A more realistic target, in his view, would be getting into the world's top-50 by next Christmas, so qualifying for his first US Masters. "It won't be easy," he acknowledged, from a current 125th. "But I believe the Majors suit me because I seem to play difficult courses well. I seem to do well when it's a bit of a grind. So I'll be going to the qualifiers for the Open and US Open this year and aiming to be in the top 100 in the world come August, which would get me into the PGA."
Three months short of his 25th birthday, he remains a committed European where tournament golf is concerned. "Though I wouldn't rule out playing in America in the long term, I'm not sure it would suit me over there," he said. "I'd first like to stamp my authority on the European Tour; become one of the leading players over here. I suppose if I was honest, I'd be happy playing the European tour for the next 20 years."
Meanwhile, returning to Abu Dhabi revives buoyant memories of his last visit there two years ago, when he started 68, 65 and went on to finish fourth behind Martin Kaymer, Ian Poulter and McIlroy. "It's always nice to go back to a place where you've done well," he said. "I love those courses in the Middle East, where you've got to hit driver on almost every hole. That kind of suits me as a decent driver of the ball, carrying it 280 to 285 yards." That's hitting within himself, of course. "Oh no," he replied. "I hit everything flat out. As hard as I can."
Which is certain to prompt a smile down Clara way, where his many friends and admirers will also have noted their hero's reticence in hurrying back to the gym to trim off unwanted pounds accumulated over Christmas.
No doubt they'll be following his fortunes this week, anticipating further progress up the tournament ladder. And given that Lowry has always known how to win, the next step is certain to be exciting.
Sunday Indo Sport