Monday 23 October 2017

Lowry feels vibes as Rory sings the blues

Shane Lowry of Ireland shakes hands with Rory McIlroy at the end of their first round of the Irish Open at Carton House
Shane Lowry of Ireland shakes hands with Rory McIlroy at the end of their first round of the Irish Open at Carton House

Karl MacGinty

SHANE LOWRY couldn't say where the good vibes come from on days like this, while crestfallen Rory McIlroy looked like a man wondering if he'd ever feel them again.

Lowry, effectively the tournament host at this week's Irish Open, was inspired by the enthusiastic acclaim of thousands of his fellow countrymen as he swept to within one shot of the lead with a well-crafted first-round 67.

In stark contrast, McIlroy was suffocated neither by his own nor the home crowd's expectations, but by self-doubt.

Remarkably, one of the greatest young talents in the world game was reduced to wondering almost hole by hole where on earth his next drive might fly during the two-over-par 74 which left him locked in a grim battle to make today's cut.

"You know, off the tee, I'm missing one left and I'm missing one right," the 24-year-old Holywood native confessed in a cri de coeur which will be instantly recognised by the vast majority of frustrated amateur golfers.

"At least if you have one miss, you can sort of play for it, but it's tough when you see both shots coming ... it sort of puts you in two minds every time you hit a tee shot."

Playing in a three-ball with Lowry and Dane Thomas Bjorn, crowned champion the last time the Irish Open graced the Montgomerie Course in 2006, McIlroy offered the thousands who braved the rain and cold of a sullen Thursday morning little evidence of the genius which propelled him to two record-breaking Major titles.

Instead, McIlroy played like a pale shadow of his usual self. The trademark spring was missing from his step, while, more disconcertingly, his eyes looked jaded and empty, more like those of a tired and battered old Tour veteran.

It's incredible how punishing and perplexing this sport can be.

"I hit all the shots I want on the range, but when I get out on the course, it just seems not to be really there," explained McIlroy, admitting he even felt "lost" in his efforts to find a solution to his current woes.

"I don't know if it's just a matter of trying to play my way out of it or just keep grinding on the range or whatever," he went on. "Look, I'm trying my best to go out there and play the best golf that I can but it's just not good enough at the minute."

No part of McIlroy's game rose above the mundane as he missed fairways, greens and putts, of which he took 34 yesterday, including one three-putt.

Yet it's the fallibility of his driver, the principal weapon in the youngster's armoury as he flew to the top of the world last year, which inevitably causes him most angst. McIlroy used to draw confidence from this club, but not now.

"I drove the ball really well last year and that was a big factor in my success because I was hitting it long and I was hitting it straight," he concurred.

"This year I've just got into a couple of bad habits. When you've got the two misses going, it's hard to stand up and be confident whenever you are on a tee.

"But look, I've got all the time in the world. I'm sure it will come round eventually."

Quickly enough for him to make the cut here? McIlroy this afternoon hopes to tap into the enthusiasm of the big galleries at Carton House, saying: "It'd be good to turn it around, play a bit better and make the weekend.

"It's very important. You never want to miss a cut so I want to go out there, try my best, and shoot a round at least a couple under par to get myself into the weekend."

Few such worries for Lowry, who slept soundly last night on a share of second place with Ballymoney native Michael Hoey, Dutchman Joost Luiten and young American Peter Uhlein on five-under-par, just shy of the lead held Oscar Floren (29), a Swede who had to win back his card at Q-School last November.

Another decent showing from the in-form Bjorn as he swept into a share of seventh place with, among others, talented Limerick native Cian McNamara, was not the only reminder of the last time the Irish Open was played at Carton – a cold blustery wind and driving rain also stirred chilling memories of 2006.

The rain stopped in mid-afternoon, allowing many in the 15,282 attendance to fold their umbrellas.

Unsurprisingly, that figure paled by comparison with the 23,283 who packed Royal Portrush last year for the first round of an Irish Open which shattered all crowd records on the European Tour.

However, it's disappointing to note that yesterday's numbers were a couple of thousand shy of the 17,812 who flocked to Killarney on Thursday in 2011 and the 18,803 who thronged the Killeen Course the following June.

The interesting 'Open House@17' concept, which officials hoped would stir echoes of the famously boisterous 16th in Phoenix, was damped down in the morning rain.

Though many of the 1,500 seats in the grandstand surrounding this par-three were still empty after the deluge stopped in mid-afternoon, Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell both expressed appreciation for the rapturous welcome as they walked onto the green.

"The reception we received all around the golf course was good but the crowd at 17 really were uplifting," said the Dubliner.

One must wait for the weekend and fair weather to see if this experiment, which required a €50,000 investment by the European Tour, will generate that TPC Scottsdale magic.

Not that Lowry needs any extra encouragement. The 26-year-old Clara man was accompanied for all 18 holes through rain and cold yesterday by many of the same wonderfully noisy and splendidly enthusiastic Offaly folk who followed every step of his spectacular 2009 Irish Open at Baltray.

"It was brilliant out there," he said. "The crowd from home are great and I'm sure there's going to be quite a few coming up each day for the rest of the week. It's great to have them here and a pleasure to have the support from fans from all around the country."

Lowry actually resides on the Carton Estate and enthusiastically embraced this week's occasion, which he describes as "a massive tournament. Some felt it might put a lot of added pressure on me but I've tried this week to turn that to my advantage and it's more of an incentive to do well.

"It's a privilege really, to be able to play on my own home golf course, stay in my own house and have all of my family and friends up from home to watch me. What more could a professional golfer want?"

Of course, Lowry was an amateur when he won in 2009 but, as he said himself: "This week and Baltray are like chalk and cheese.

"I was delighted to be there and would have been happy to go home from Baltray with four rounds under my belt, yet I came in this week hoping to win," added the Offaly man, who would become the first man to win the Irish Open as an amateur and a professional if that ambition is fulfilled on Sunday.

ACCOMPLISHED

Lowry underlined just how accomplished he has become by recovering from an untidy bogey, out of a left fairway bunker, at the 10th hole, his first, to land six sparkling birdies in the remaining 17 holes.

This merely was a continuation of the form he had shown in shooting 65 in last Sunday's final round of the BMW International at Munich and a performance so sharp and flawless in Wednesday's Pro-Am, he admitted: "I was trying not to go too low because I knew everyone would be shouting about it."

Lowry, winner of his first tournament as a professional at last October's Portugal Masters, usually gives little thought to the technical side of the game and does not involve himself in the mental gymnastics performed by so many of his colleagues on Tour.

"I just like to go out there, hit it, go find it, then hit it again," he shrugged.

McIlroy clearly wishes right now that the game was so simple, though he at least received words of encouragement from Lowry. "To be honest, I was so focused on my own game, I wasn't really watching him, but Rory's Rory and I wouldn't be worried about him at all – he'll definitely be back soon!"

Irish Open, Live,

RTE1, 10.05/2.25, Sky Sports 1, 10.0/3.0

Irish Independent

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