'I've never been so excited before a tournament' - Shane Lowry buzzing ahead of Masters at Augusta
Shane Lowry awoke to a morning of inky, rain-sodden stasis in North Georgia yesterday, but declared himself untroubled by the loss of practice hours for his fourth US Masters.
Augusta National looked like the Savannah itself as promised thunderstorms forced another course closure, leaving the world's best golfers drumming their fingers on golf's most exotic piece of real estate. For Lowry, the inconvenience was met with easy, maybe practised indifference.
Having played 27 holes since his arrival, Lowry believes he is already better placed than ever before to face down the unique pressures of Masters week.
Lowry has made the cut just once in three previous visits here, finishing tied 39th after rounds of 68, 76, 79 and 75 in 2016. That Thursday 68 stands as his only sub-70 return from eight competitive rounds of the National course. Yet, he is excited by the possibilities here.
Having flown up from Palm Beach, Lowry's initial intention was to play just nine holes on Sunday. "But it was so nice I kept going," he smiled. "It was perfect. You take it for granted when you are here, but we didn't get off the course until half-six, quarter-to-seven. I didn't see another person on the back nine. It is one of the greatest places in the world.
"And look, a few months ago, I wasn't supposed to be here!"
Lowry's January win in Abu Dhabi catapulted him into contention to make the Masters field, albeit a subsequent loss of form did leave him sweating over that obligatory top 50 world ranking.
He is considered a remote 100/1 shot to be called to the Butler Cabin on Sunday evening, but the Clara man believes he has resolved the driving issues that left him requiring at least one victory at last week's WGC Match Play in Austin to be certain of playing here. He also considers himself far less susceptible now to the kind of distractions that undermined his debut in 2015.
That year he remembers having a pre-tournament chipping competition with Pádraig Harrington when Tiger Woods walked over to chat to the three-time Major winner. Because of nerves, Lowry was barely able to swing the club in front of Woods and admits that other issues niggled him that week.
One was his realisation that there were far too many people staying in the house he'd rented and, accordingly, little opportunity for peace. Another was the sense of being helplessly seduced by an event and place as distinct from having himself primed to play a tournament.
"The first year you are in awe of the place, it's a bit weird," admitted Lowry, who had his father, Brendan, and coach, Neil Manchip, for company on Sunday. "When you become more comfortable, it is easier to get your bearings and stuff. Even just driving down Magnolia Lane, walking in the clubhouse, it all takes getting used to. I just said to my dad and Neil, walking into the grill room to have lunch, it is much easier to do it for your fourth year than it is the first year when you are afraid you'd do something wrong."
Lowry has been paired with former champion, Canadian Mike Weir, and American amateur Kevin O'Connell for the first two days, teeing off tomorrow at 1.52pm Irish time. He will tee up for today's par three competition alongside England's Matt Fitzpatrick, finally bringing to life the dream he had on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi of his daughter Iris "running around Augusta in a little white suit, caddying for me."
While he considers a US Open the ultimate test of a golfer's game, Lowry sees little room for the tiniest hiccup of concentration at Augusta.
"People try and say what it takes to win around here," he explained. "It literally takes every part of your game. There is no... you can't get away with doing anything bad.
"You hit a bad drive, you are out of position. You hit a bad iron shot, you are out of position. You hit a bad chip shot, or hit a bad putt...
"It just takes your whole game to be good. I feel like for the most part of the year my chipping has been pretty good, my iron play has been lovely for a few months, and my putting... I still feel has been decent and I feel comfortable. I have a (new) driver now and if I can go out, get it in play and give myself a few chances I can do alright.
"But Jesus... this is... there is no doubt... I have never been as excited, since the first time I was here. It is the most excited I have been to come to a golf tournament. It was almost last week I was counting down the days. Maybe for a couple of years I was in here and taking it for granted a little bit."
Lowry's pillar-to-post $1,166,660 win in Abu Dhabi, italicised a hard mental edge, particularly when his three-shot overnight lead so quickly curdled into a four-shot Sunday deficit behind South African Richard Sterne.
After suffering the trauma of losing that four-shot three-round lead in the 2016 US Open at Oakmont, it would have been only human to face the back nine with a head full of demons. And Lowry did.
"I honestly thought I was gone," he admitted subsequently. Yet, somehow, he summoned the mental strength to rein Sterne back in, edging to victory in the end by a shot.
That achievement now emboldens the Clara man, who declares flatly that he "won't be afraid to win" if in contention on Sunday evening.
The specifics of his driving issues have, Lowry hopes, been largely resolved now. "I am not making excuses or anything but I have struggled with my driver all year, really struggled" he admitted. "I am on my fifth or sixth driver since Abu Dhabi. I have to tell myself this, but I feel the one I have now is good.
"I've played 27 holes around here now and it doesn't have a big miss in it. I have had a serious left in my tee-shot all year and you can't play golf with that, a quick left."
More pertinently, the 32-year-old - his Abu Dhabi triumph a first tournament win since 2015 - believes he has the maturity to be a bigger player this week than before at Augusta.
"I feel like I am ahead of the game with 27 holes played," he admitted. "The bad weather won't worry me at all. Look the top 10 (in the world rankings) are going to be up there, a few of them will always be up there, whether it is Rory (McIlroy) or Brooks (Koepka) or DJ (Dustin Johnson). There's always a few of them knocking around the top of the leaderboard.
"A player of my ranking and stature, you come in under the radar and try and go about your business the way you want and hopefully get yourself in the mix come the weekend.
"I think I'm more mature. I try to put things in a bit more perspective these days. That doesn't say I will be out there, not caring about how I play. It is great to be here and I'm going to give it my best. We'll see where it leaves me on Sunday."