Thursday 23 January 2020

Dermot Gilleece: 'Triumph that united a nation'


Lowry's deep affection for Portrush, where he won the 2008 North of Ireland Championship, has since been proclaimed in the simple words, 'I love the place'. Photo: Sportsfile
Lowry's deep affection for Portrush, where he won the 2008 North of Ireland Championship, has since been proclaimed in the simple words, 'I love the place'. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

Five months on from those unforgettable July days by the Antrim coast, Ian Bamford believes the 148th Open Championship is set to become the most significant happening in the history of Irish golf. This, from an accomplished player, administrator and all-round devotee of the game for more than 70 years.

"It was a monumental win for Ireland," said the retired Belfast judge. "I've never seen such cross-community acclamation of a winner in my life before. Shane Lowry did us all proud."

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Perhaps most remarkable of all, is that the winning was so decisive. As Lowry stood on the 72nd tee, consulting his course-planner of the re-shaped Dunluce stretch for the last time, an engraver was putting the finishing touches to his etched name on the plinth of the famous Claret Jug.

An unthinkable nine on the par-four final hole, would still have been enough to see off his closest challenger, Tommy Fleetwood. "Never before, had winning been so easy," the player reflected. "I didn't know what to do with myself coming down the 18th."

Bamford was there, as a member and past captain of the host club, just as he had been, back in 1951, when Max Faulkner captured The Open on its only previous visit to that stunning piece of duneland.

"There we had Portrush, which voted unionist all of their lives, and here was Fleetwood, a true-born Englishman head-to-head against a true-born Irishman," he added. "And the unionists were cheering the Irishman, not the Englishman. Wasn't that amazing? I had to smile at that."

Political allegiances weren't the only aspect of an occasion we are unlikely to witness again. Still, Irish success in the Major championships over the last 13 years was always difficult to imagine, given the false dawns that had gone before.

Ironically, it was a Portrush man, Fred Daly, who started it all, with his Open triumph at Hoylake in 1947. But for the next 60 years, nobody dared follow his lead, until Pádraig Harrington showed them the way at Carnoustie in 2007. I remember asking one of our leading players if he thought he could win The Open, only to receive the response: "Aw come on now. They're all here you know."

It was an honest answer: he simply couldn't imagine himself taking on and beating the world's leading players at the highest level. But it wasn't the way Lowry was thinking while he attempted to take money off Harrington during their regular practice sessions together.

Yet there was still self-doubt to be overcome. "Every time an Irish player won a Major after Pádraig, I used to curse them," was the Clara man's way of admitting the heightened level of expectation, especially in the wake of his Irish Open triumph as an amateur at Baltray, 10 years ago.

Though it measures a modest 421 yards, the first hole on the Dunluce Links was unlikely to bring comfort to the pursuers of golf's greatest prize, not least with out of bounds left and right off the tee. In sharply contrasting circumstances as a 15-year-old, Darren Clarke ran up a nine there, the first time he played it.

And Lowry would have been acutely aware of the wretched eight which blighted Rory McIlroy's challenge on the Thursday. Now it was Sunday afternoon and with a four-shot lead entering the final round, he and his caddie, Bo Martin, stood on the tee like two intrepid adventurers, ready to face whatever lay in wait for them on the road ahead.

As it happened, not even a cautious long-iron off the tee managed to keep him out of trouble. And his composure was further dented by a recovery shot into sand, 54 yards from the target. Eventually, he had an eight-foot putt for a bogey to avoid conceding two shots to his playing partner, Fleetwood.

"Banging in that putt was a huge moment," Lowry recalled. "Though it meant going to the next tee only three ahead, it felt like I'd gained a shot."

The weekend was to test him on a number of levels. He has since described Saturday as "the longest morning of my life." When he swept into action at 3.40 in the afternoon, however, it proved to be a day largely of good decisions, apart from a poor tee-shot on the 14th, where a misfortunate spectator stopped his ball going into heavy stuff.

Lowry recalled: "I met my dad and he's going, 'You've hit someone on the head'. On the head! I tried to relax. I said sorry, signed a glove and gave it to the spectator. Then, after missing the green, I hit a difficult pitch to three or four feet and holed it for par.

"From there, I felt so in control, so aware of what was going on. After birdies on three of the last four holes, I nearly birdied 18. As long as I play the game, I don't think that I'll ever see anything like that afternoon. It was incredible. Scenes like we've never seen in an Open Championship before."

A player whom wildly enthusiastic galleries had taken to their heart, sparked it all by shooting a 63 to open up a commanding lead with a round to play.

Miserable conditions of wind and stinging rain on the Sunday had the effect of heightening the gap in class between Lowry and his challengers. Their unavailing efforts at hauling him in, served only to emphasise the leader's untouchable dominance. From being three ahead on the second tee, he was soon five clear after a birdie on the 482-yard fourth.

Meanwhile, a measure of his challengers' struggles was that in the precise moments Lowry chipped and putted the difficult 10th for par to remain 16-under for the championship, a threatening Lee Westwood had just bogeyed the 11th and 12th to slip eight shots adrift.

As if conscious of the stress on his countless admirers, the Clara man proceeded to ease himself towards Major glory just like Harrington at Royal Birkdale in 2008 and like McIlroy did in his runaway triumphs in the 2011 US Open and the PGA Championship 14 months later.

Though he later insisted that nothing was taken for granted until his drive on the tricky 17th had found terra firma, the fist-pump prompted by his birdie on the 15th, revealed a player completely in control of his destiny.

Since those heady moments, Lowry's admirable sense of perspective has served to heighten the merit of a sequence of accolades.

When receiving RTE's Sportsperson of the Year Award from his father, Brendan, he talked before the cameras of the funeral that weekend of a close friend, John Buckley.

It seemed to echo earlier words about the glow he experienced in enjoying his Open triumph "with people close to you". And it wasn't difficult to believe him when he added: "Family and friends mean everything to me."

Lowry's deep affection for Portrush, where he had earlier won the 2008 North of Ireland Championship, has since been proclaimed in the simple words, "I love the place". Bamford could hardly believe it. "Did he say that, all of five months on from the event?" asked the veteran who won the Irish Amateur Open there in 1957. "Our members are going to admire him all the more for it."

So emphasising the unifying power of a remarkable triumph.

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