Sunday 21 January 2018

Lowry keen to put things right for Fota challenge

The Irish Open and its former winner are looking to the future, says Dermot Gilleece

Shane Lowry: 'Work...If you talk to my coach, Neil Manchip, he says it's not work. It's just a game of golf.'
Shane Lowry: 'Work...If you talk to my coach, Neil Manchip, he says it's not work. It's just a game of golf.'

Dermot Gilleece

A return to Fota Island and its eye-catching 18th green, with water left, right and back, revives images of the Irish Open in 2002 and Soren Hansen setting up a 72nd hole eagle-three with a stunning, wedge second-shot of 160 yards. "You won't be getting there with a short-iron this year," Shane Lowry remarked with relish last week.

Interestingly, Hansen went on to hit an even better shot in the four-man play-off for the championship. A four-iron to 10 feet on the 222-yard 17th yielded a title-winning birdie at what was the fourth extra hole.

As the amateur winner in 2009, Lowry spearheaded the official launch of the championship's return to Cork on June 19-22 after a lapse of 12 years. And his Baltray exploits were still fresh in the memory. "Five years ago this Saturday, I won the Irish Open. The 17th of May. Did you know that?" The boyish enthusiasm was accompanied by a typical Lowry grin.

It hasn't been an easy season so far. The problem has been putting, the bane of every struggling professional's life. For the first time in six seasons on tour, his return with the blade has slipped from the 29s to 30.45 putts per round. Which has pushed his stroke average to a highest-ever of 73.00.

In contrast to many of his self-absorbed colleagues, it's always a joy to engage with Lowry. He begins to explain how he's trying to rectify the loss of form. "I work . . ." he says while stifling a laugh. "Work . . . If you talk to my coach, Neil Manchip, he says it's not work. It's just a game of golf." More laughter.

Then, with all the seriousness he can muster, he goes on: "But I practise and do all the stuff that I feel will make me a better player. I come across as easy-going and a lot of people claim to like me for that. But when I hit a bad run of form, like right now, they criticise me for not taking it seriously enough."

Recent canonisation ceremonies at the Vatican bring to mind how far one of the game's greatest players was prepared to go to solve his putting problems. During the 1960s, Sam Snead was in Italy on a European tour when the opportunity arose for what he described as an "audition" with Pope John XXIII, now St John.

When the tour manager, Fred Corcoran, suggested to the player that he take his ailing putter for a papal blessing, Snead thought it worth a try. Corcoran later recalled: "I remember we were met in the vestry of St Peter's by a monsignor whose eyebrows flitted up into his tonsure when Snead checked in with his clubs.

"But he turned out to be a 100-shooter himself and immediately went to confession to Sam about his putting problems. Sam sighed, picked up his clubs and headed back to the car. 'If you're this close to the Pope and you can't putt,' he drawled over his shoulder, 'he ain't gonna be able to do anything for me'.''

One imagines Lowry seeking a more orthodox solution. "It's all part of golf," he suggests philosophically. "And while this year hasn't been great so far, I don't see myself as a underachiever. In fact, I think the last five years since I won the Irish Open have been quite good. I'm the kind of fella to go with the flow and I believe I've done well.

"But I've a much clearer picture of where I want to be after the next five years. When I'm 32, I want to be comfortably in the top 50 in the world, contending for Majors and other big tournaments. Playing Ryder Cups. Not worrying about my exempt status. That's where I want to be. In fact, I aim to be there by the time I'm 30."

His next assignment is this week's BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth where he had a memorable challenge in 2011, shooting 69, 67 at the weekend for a share of fourth place behind Luke Donald. "Though I have no expectation of making this year's Ryder Cup team, one week can turn your whole season around," he says. "It would take something outrageous in the next few weeks, but you never know. I mean I could be sitting back in Gleneagles Hotel in September."

Graeme McDowell's first "home" appearance as a tournament professional was in the Irish Open pro-am of 2002 when I happened to be a member of his team. And early scoring had me thinking of a delightfully mischievous remark by Feidhlim McLoughlin on gaining his lone international rugby cap. "Between us, me and my brother (Ray) have played 41 times for Ireland," he said expansively.

After four holes at Fota, McDowell and I had contributed four birdies to the team effort – he at the first, third and fourth; your scribe at the second, courtesy of a handicap stroke. Either way, the course is now significantly upgraded through the insight of director of golf, Kevin Morris, so as to maintain shot values against a background of improved equipment, notably the golf ball.

"Given that guys are hitting the ball 25 to 30 yards further, we've added 150 yards to the overall length," said Morris, who has been at Fota for 21 years.

"The main changes have been to the par fives, but the nature of the 18th means it will play longer than the 25 yards we've added on (532). They won't be able to get drives down the hill, as Hansen did."

He then talked of the new tee location at the sixth, where you now turn left from the fifth green into trees, having previously turned right. "It's 364 yards off the back tee but with a carry of 200 yards over water," he said. "And if they play off the forward tee (320 yards), the tricky, two-tier green could be reachable for the longer hitters. I'd like to see that."

Arguably the biggest change from 2002, however, is the way the course has matured, especially the trees. For instance, the fourth green is no longer visible from the first and the sixth can no longer be seen from the third. Each hole is more or less isolated from its neighbour.

When Fota Island Resort was bought last year by the Chinese Kang family, one of the early objectives was to have a worthy, relaunch of the venue.

To this end, they have invested €500,000 in the Irish Open, which is likely to return there in 2016, after it has gone north to Royal Co Down.

Various infrastructural refinements account for half that figure, which means that the remaining €250,000 has gone into the tournament fund making this the first Irish Open since Adare Manor in 2008 where a staging fee has been paid.

Which became especially welcome to the European Tour when an earlier invitation to associate-sponsors, Heineken, to become title sponsors was declined.

After a nine-year investment of more than €25 million, the departure of Murphy's as Irish Open title sponsors in the wake of 2002 led to periods of uncertainty about the future of the event. The commitment of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, however, allied to Northern Ireland involvement, has brought a welcome recent stability.

Now, in a delightful Cork setting, the event is seeking another pointer towards a healthy future.

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