Lowry's desert storm
Red-hot putter helps Offaly man grab share of second place
MEMORIES of stormy Baltray and the beautiful bedlam of last May's Irish Open came flooding back in the Arabian Desert yesterday.
"Hmmm, feels like I've been here before," said Shane Lowry (22) with a cheeky grin as he eased himself into an armchair in the media centre after his flawless second round 65 at The Abu Dhabi Championship. With those few words this young man from Clara expressed the sense of deja vu felt by every Irishman in the room.
The last time he'd been summoned to a press conference on Friday at a Tour event was at Co Louth last summer, when Lowry, then an amateur, had shot the staggering second-round 62 which set him up for the most sensational victory in the history of his national open.
Yesterday's flawless effort in the desert sun initially had been for a share of the lead with Sergio Garcia and Sweden's Peter Hanson on 11-under -- until Australian Rick Kulacz (24) eased one stroke ahead late in the day with a splendid 63.
Outwardly, Lowry doesn't look much different than before but the eight months since taking his first uncertain steps into the professional arena have changed him into a markedly more polished, self-assured and savvy golfer.
He is also a lot more committed to practice and the pursuit of excellence than his easygoing nature suggests.
"To be honest," he admits, "since the Irish Open I've started to practise a lot more and I think I'm seeing the benefits. My swing has become a lot neater and there are fewer bad shots in there.
"Mentally, I've come on a lot as well," he adds. "Though I won the Irish Open, when I first came out on tour, I missed a few cuts and started thinking 'am I supposed to be out here'. That made me work harder to try get better.
"Obviously after Baltray, I knew my good golf was good enough but you have to try and ensure that when you play badly, you still can achieve a better score ... be more consistent."
While Lowry's workload has increased, he's also learned exactly where to draw the line. "When I'm practising, the people around me know when I'm getting bored and say 'c'mon, let's go for a drink'," explains the Offaly man, adding: "though not an alcoholic one!"
"I've kind of found out how much I need to practise. I've also developed my routine. All in all, the last eight months have been great for me. The experience I've gained will stand me in good stead in future."
Having performed impressively throughout the opening 36 holes of his first tournament of 2009, Lowry deserves his place near the head of one of the strongest fields ever seen at a regular European Tour event.
"Over the last couple of days, I've played lovely and haven't made too many mistakes," he says, adding: "I've only made one bogey in two rounds, which is very unlike me."
The seven birdies on his card yesterday were founded on a powerful display with his new driver; tight approach play and sturdy back-up from his lob-wedge when required.
Meanwhile, his putting looked infallible from the moment he rolled in a "nice 20-footer" for his first birdie at the teasing par three 12th, his third hole.
One man not surprised by Lowry's display is his former foursomes partner on the Irish amateur team, Rory McIlroy. "Shane's playing great. He took the money off me in Dubai last week," he said.
The sum was a not substantial 400 Dirhams (roughly €77). Of far greater significance was Lowry's form. After playing just seven holes of golf in the previous four weeks, it took only four days with coach Neil Manchip for the Offaly man to strike a rich vein of form.
McIlroy himself also played sublimely over the opening 36 holes in Abu Dhabi as he eased into a five-way tie for eighth place on nine-under. The Holywood youngster left his playing companions, Garcia and Henrik Stenson, in the shade with a breathtaking display of ball-striking.
Yet, despite finding all 18 greens in regulation, McIlroy spurned a procession of birdie chances, shooting 'just' 69, against the 67 posted by the wayward Spaniard, who had a dream day on the greens after sinking a 50-footer for birdie at his first hole, the par-four 10th, yesterday morning.
Insisting he's happy with his putting stroke, McIlroy explains instead that the brownish colour of the greens made it difficult for him to read the break. "I struggled to read several of my putts today -- I think I'll be calling in JP (Fitzgerald, his caddie) a little more."
McIlroy did strike the majority of his putts well. Yet you could see the certainty drain from his stroke with each one that slid past the cup, to the point where he pulled his birdie attempt from five feet at his final hole yesterday, the ninth.
So he headed straight for the practice green and a confidence-boosting session of hitting a long series of straight putts down a chalk line and into the cup. McIlroy, who defends his Dubai Desert Classic title in a fortnight, is still well in contention for his second Tour victory.
Peter Lawrie and Darren Clarke both squeezed through on two-under, though the Ulsterman gave himself a fright when, in an effort not to stand on Graeme McDowell's line, he missed a two-foot tap-in for par at the last ... sadly, McDowell missed by a whisker his 15-foot birdie attempt -- and the cut.
Leader Kulacz, who fired a phenomenal final round 64 at PGA Catalunya to clinch European Tour card No 26 at Q-School last November, certainly has justified the sponsor's invite he received to play here. So has Rhys Davies (24) of Wales, in a tie for fourth on 10-under with Martin Kaymer and Chris Wood.
One notable absentee this weekend will be Race to Dubai-winner Lee Westwood, who missed the cut by five and then complained new shafts made his irons "feel like fishing rods".
Yet with the whoops and hollers of Baltray still ringing our ears, the next two days in Abu Dhabi will be full of Middle Eastern promise for the Irish as our Open Champion bids for his first winner's cheque as a professional.
Abu Dhabi Championship, Day Three, Sky Sports 2, Live, 9.0