Saturday 24 March 2018

Local hero: How Cinderella man bagged €1.45m

Celebration: John Boland, club captain at Esker Hills Golf Club in Co Offaly. Photograph: James Flynn/APX
Celebration: John Boland, club captain at Esker Hills Golf Club in Co Offaly. Photograph: James Flynn/APX
Shane Lowry holds the Gary Player Cup after winning the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio this week.
Shane Lowry after winning the West of Ireland Amateur Open Golf Championship at County Sligo Golf Club, Rosses Point in 2008. Photo: Brian Farrell

Graham Clifford

Humble Shane Lowry has long been admired at home and less appreciated abroad. But the secret to his success lies deep in the midlands.

I once heard an American golf commentator refer to Shane Lowry as a very "black and white kind of guy, when you ask him a straight question, you get a straight answer". That observation is of course accurate but around his native Clara, the locals see him as "black and white" for different reasons.

"On the Sunday of every golf championship he plays in, Shane wears our club colours, black and white, he's always done it," explains John Buckley, who would have watched a young Shane kick ball with the GAA club when in his teens.

"Sure he's a GAA, Offaly and Clara fanatic. Even on the morning he won the Portuguese Masters in 2012 he was texting some of our players here to wish them the best of luck as we were playing in the County Final that day. That's pure Shane," John, who now coaches the club's junior football sides, says from behind the counter of his butcher shop on the main street in Clara.

And in many ways the words 'pure' and 'Shane' go together well. Because, for all the glitz and glamour that's associated with winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, with a tasty winner's cheque of €1.45m, the Clara-man is expected to remain down-to-earth and simply one of the local lads.

"Look he's a world-class golfer but he'll walk in here, pull up a stool and have the craic and a drink with the boys - just as one of us," explains Paul Rabbitte of Bunny's Bar in Clara.

"Sure he was down at one of our county championship games there a couple of weeks back. It's hard for us to comprehend the enormity of what he's achieved, I think we still can't quite believe it," adds Paul.

Bunny's was hopping into the wee hours last Monday as locals celebrated like it was 1982 - when Offaly robbed Kerry of their bid for five-in-a-row with that last-gasp Séamus Darby goal. Shane's father Brendan and uncles Sean and Mick were part of that All-Ireland winning team and so it was inevitable that GAA and competitive sport would play such a role in Shane's life from an early age.

His father was a winner, his uncles were winners and he was going to make sure that he was a winner. He played as a corner forward and occasionally full forward for Clara up to Under-16 level before the golf required all his focus.

"He was amazingly accurate from frees and was always good for a few points in a game," recalls John Buckley. Shane also played in goal for the hurling side and many recall that he'd nearly land a point with his puck-outs

"Some people in other parts of the world might have been surprised by Shane's amazing win but we certainly weren't. He's dedicated, he's driven, he's level-headed and mature, he's very competitive and of course he's a brilliant golfer. When Shane looks at the other guys out on the course around him, he just knows that he deserves to be there amongst them," explains John Boland - the captain at Shane's local club Esker Hills.

As we zoom across the course's glistening fairways and up and down the grassy hills on a golf buggy, John shows me the particular holes on this course where Shane Lowry would have spent hours honing his skills. Rabbits dive for cover as we criss-cross this stunning course. Local man Liam Wyer, who turns 78 today, was one of the first to spot Shane's massive potential.

"When he was just 13 or 14 Shane would be out on the course here but have no one to play with. He'd run up to me and ask that I come out and play a few holes with him and of course I always did. He was such a lovely young lad and very driven," recalls Liam.

And Liam was instrumental in entering Lowry in his very first golfing competition.

"A fella from Birr rang me up one day and asked if I could get a team together from Esker Hills to play in a competition. I suggested Shane but I was kind of embarrassed as he was only about 14 or 15 at the time. Sure, didn't Shane play a blinder and we won the competition and got a television set each for ourselves."

Looking back, Liam says Shane had that something special that differentiates good young golfers from great young golfers.

"He was taking shots that no other young lad would be doing. Like he could picture the shot before he'd hit it. You know, I wasn't one bit surprised when he won at the weekend and of course we all shed a tear," says Liam who also had a fiver on his old friend at odds of 100/1 each way!

After attending St Francis Boys National School in Clara, Shane went on to Ardscoil Chiarain in the Co Offaly town and attended the nearby Athlone Institute of Technology as a scholarship student on the Higher Certificate in Sport and Recreation.

John Buckley believes the reaction to Shane Lowry's success in Firestone has been so exceptional because so many people, not just in Ireland but around the world, can relate to him. His teeth don't sparkle, he's not fronting every advertising campaign going and he's not a self-obsessed athlete as so many at the top of world sport tend to be.

"Shane breaks the mould of the super-fit athlete, but the thing is, he is extremely fit. You don't rise to the top of your career in the way he has if you're not. Television doesn't do him justice, if he was standing there now, you wouldn't believe how slim he is. He doesn't believe in the gym every day. And look, he's seriously talented, whatever he does to stay fit and prepare for championships clearly works for him."

The task now facing Shane is to find a way to deal with the increased media demands and corporate interest in brand Lowry.

As the Irish Independent's Vincent Hogan wrote this week, with his tongue firmly in his cheek: "Someday soon Shane Lowry's going to have to stop this silliness of always smiling at the world and mistaking every fan for someone's parent, sibling or child."

Of course, the allure of Shane Lowry is the warmth of his personality.

"I think he's really benefitted from growing up as a normal guy," says John Buckley, adding "like look at someone like Tiger Woods. He was programmed to be a golfing great from the age of three and now look where that has him on and off the course."

Coincidentally, on the night of Shane's win, the Esker Hills golf club were holding a celebration to honour his brother Alan's recent success in the prestigious Mullingar Scratch Cup.

Back in Bunny's, the Lowry boys' uncle, Tom Scanlon, has popped in for a bottle of beer and tells me he felt a little sorry for Alan though.

"He was up-staged a bit I suppose after what was a huge win for him. He was actually half way through his speech and turned around to look at the television as Jim Furyk had missed a putt and the place went wild," says Tom. But he knows Alan will have only been too happy to play second fiddle on a night when his brother was making headlines from Ohio to Clara and on to Beijing.

In the clubhouse of Esker Hills Shane Lowry's face is everywhere. One of his 'black and white' golf bags is the prize in a raffle in aid of the juniors at the club. 'Esker Hills - home of Shane Lowry, the winner of the Irish Open 2009' is engraved into a window at the club. I suggest to the lady at reception that they'll need to change that. "We'll just need to order a bigger window," she jokes, and with the way their boy is playing, she might be right.

Over a pot of tea, John Boland tells me why he believes Shane Lowry is now one of the hottest properties in world golf.

"Golf is as much about mental strength as it is about sporting ability," says John, adding "and Shane Lowry is a mature and relaxed man. So much of that is down to his upbringing. Brendan and Bridgie, his parents, Alan, his brother, and Sinead, his sister, are lovely down-to-earth people. And the whole community here is like Shane's extended family. When Shane is in a stressful situation on the course, I'm sure he thinks of home and it helps."

His fiancée, Wendy Honner, a nurse from Mountrath, Co Laois but working in Dublin, has "as much interest in golf as the man in the moon," explains John Buckley as a customer comes in to pick up some lamb chops. Bridgie, Shane's mother, shops here but not today.

After returning from serving his customer, he continues: "Yeah, I first met her at the Munster football final, down in Killarney a few year back. She's a lovely girl, great craic, like himself, sure."

Lowry popped the question last December to the "love of his life", describing it as the "icing on the cake" of a successful year.

Interweaving the ordinary with the extraordinary, the delightfully familiar with the challenging new dawn, has helped keep Lowry's golf studs on the ground.

The combination of a normal upbringing where GAA and community played such a massive role, the constant support and encouragement of friends and family, the total lack of any ego and the thirst for success has seen Shane Lowry evolve into something truly special in the world of top-tier golf.

"Make no mistake, he can now go on and win a major," says John Boland, while his Uncle Tom admits he'd simply love to see his nephew representing Ireland at the next Olympics.

The world is Shane Lowry's oyster….but oysters, champagne and all other trappings of glory aren't for Shane. Give him a bacon sandwich, a mug of tea and a competitive county championship game involving his local club Clara and he'd be in his element.

Can Shane now  lead Ireland at next Olympics?

So Shane Lowry has broken into the world's top 20, he's won a massive event at which only the world's best golfers were invited to play and now will concentrate on winning one of the four major events and making the next Ryder Cup team.

But beyond those amazing successes and lofty goals, there will be one particular challenge that, if chosen, Lowry would relish.

Golf will be included in the Olympic Games in Brazil next year, and the two highest-ranked Irish players at the time will be chosen as our competitors. Were that team to be announced today then it would be made up of Rory McIlroy (world no 1) and Shane Lowry (no 19). "That really would be dream territory," says Shane's uncle, Tom Scanlon. "Shane loves his country so much, the chance to play under the national flag at the Olympic Games with the opportunity of winning gold for Ireland would be out of this world."

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