I'm five years from a Major victory – Lowry
Offaly man enjoying ride but McDowell has eyes on the prize
IT was like a knife to the heart. Shane Lowry threw his hands to his head in mock despair and groaned out loud as Graeme McDowell's 12-foot putt for eagle tumbled into the cup at Muirfield's historic 17th hole.
It was the telling moment in yesterday's 'duel in the sun' between two of Irish golf's finest.
The battle for the Claret Jug begins in earnest tomorrow, but there was no shortage of intensity or banter as Lowry and McDowell grappled for a £100 wager and priceless bragging rights.
It all lends an added edge to their practice for the British Open on a strategic masterpiece of a golf course, which has witnessed the coronation of a succession of golf legends, including Walter Hagan, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo, in 15 previous visits by this championship.
Portrush native McDowell (33), winner of the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach and three of his last eight tournaments, is viewed widely as one of the leading rivals to 10/1 favourite Tiger Woods, one of his playing companions in the opening two rounds.
Lowry (26), playing in his second British Open and fourth Major, has enough links experience, including his 2009 Irish Open victory at Baltray, to spark each-way interest at 100/1.
As they marched towards the final tee, Lowry reminded McDowell the contest wasn't over.
The Ulsterman retorted by hitting a magnificent drive which rode the brisk right-to-left crosswind into the heart of the fairway, while Lowry's tee shot flew into a left fairway bunker, famously visited by Padraig Harrington on the 72nd hole of the 2002 British Open.
The contest effectively ended in howls of laughter from all concerned, including the Clara man, when Lowry's attempted escape rebounded off the steep revetted face of the bunker and hit him squarely on the chest before falling back to his feet.
After handing over the cash at the last, Lowry shook his head in feigned exasperation and said of McDowell's truly spectacular eagle on 17: "We were all square and he was putting the money away there.
"All day he plays sh**e," added Lowry, barely concealing a grin. "Then he rips two down 17 and plays that tee shot on 18. That's Graeme for you, he does it when he needs to."
In reality, Lowry enjoyed every second of another day borrowed from golf paradise. His sights may not be set as high as McDowell's at this British Open, but he relishes the challenge posed by Muirfield, a course he played once before with the Irish amateur team at the 2008 Home Internationals.
Tied 37th after challenging going into the weekend at St Andrews in 2010, his only previous appearance in golf's oldest Major, Lowry's glorious touch around the green could stand him in strong stead. First he must meet that first pre-requisite at Muirfield and consistently hit his ball in the fairway.
The Offaly man, who tied fifth at the recent Irish Open and shared with Gareth Shaw the honour of being the home nation's best finisher, wisely is not overburdening himself with expectation this week.
"You kind of get used to playing in Majors," he explained. "This is only my fourth one and I'm not expecting to go out and win here. I'd just like to go out and play four rounds and, if I've half a chance going into the weekend, I'll be happy enough.
"I just need to get more experience. I know maybe four or five years down the line, I could have a chance to win a Major but right now I intend just to enjoy the week. It's obviously brilliant to be here and learning from the experience."
Yet there's a clear glint of ambition in the eye of McDowell.
This battle-hardened veteran's three tournament victories have been exceeded in 2013 by one other player, Woods, whose four wins in the US propelled him to back to world No 1.
McDowell's sole top-10 finish in nine appearances at the Open, registered last year when he finished fifth behind Ernie Els at Lytham, is a very modest return indeed for a man reared in links golf and widely respected as a superior strategist.
European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley expects McDowell, like Woods, to revel in the challenge posed by Muirfield, saying: "Graeme has proved himself and won on really tight golf courses.
"The French Open is probably played on the toughest set-up we face all year in Europe and he won at Hilton Head, which is a very tight golf course with a big onus on course management.
"Then his other win was the Volvo Match Play, where again you had to play for position off the tee and couldn't overpower the golf course. It also was running fast and bouncy.
"So I think there's a common denominator with all the courses where Graeme has won this year," added McGinley, who rates Tiger's credentials for a fourth Claret Jug just as highly in an Open which this week places a huge premium on patience.
Hugely impressed with the sublime strategic nous of Woods as he ground out victory at May's Players Championship in Sawgrass, McGinley said: "Tiger's having a bit of a lull (in the Majors) but everyone has lulls in their career and I certainly wouldn't discount him this week.
"He won in 2006 around Hoylake in similar conditions, when the course was fast and bouncy. He displayed a high degree of technique and good course management around there and I think the skills are going to be required this week.
"The weather report is that the wind is going to die down and there's going to be bright sunshine," added McGinley, who visited Muirfield on Monday for an informal dinner with his US counterpart Tom Watson.
"There's going to be a big onus on course management and not being too aggressive on a links course. You have to play for position, be patient and let your score build up and I think he has proved he is good under those conditions."
Bottom line, don't be surprised if McDowell and Woods play together once again coming down the stretch on Sunday, when much more than Lowry's £100 will be at stake.