Monday 19 August 2019

Paul Kimmage on Shane Lowry: 'Effortlessly popular player who has his priorities in proper order'

Open Champion Shane Lowry of Ireland celebrates with wife Wendy and daughter Iris on the 18th green. Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Open Champion Shane Lowry of Ireland celebrates with wife Wendy and daughter Iris on the 18th green. Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Ken (Venturi) said he learned all he needed to know about Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters.

That was the tournament Woods won by twelve shots at age twenty-one, playing in his first major as a pro. It was all so unlikely. Woods' father grew up in a segregated country. His mother grew up in Thailand. To say the least, they were not country-clubbers. When Tiger holed out on eighteen on Sunday, it was stirring. I was standing right there.

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"He walked right by his mother on that eighteenth green and gave the hug to his father," Ken told us. "He showed no respect for his mother." - Michael Bamberger (Men in Green)

We were standing in front of the starter's office to the left of the first tee. Shane Lowry had his hands in his pockets and was gazing pensively down the fairway; Tommy Fleetwood had pulled a club and was making a couple of swings. Eight minutes had passed since they had crossed the gangway from the practice green and been greeted with raucous cheers.

Go on Shane!

Come on Tommy!

When I glance at Brendan again, there are tears in his eyes. ‘What an amazing thing to win the Open in Ireland,’ he says. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
When I glance at Brendan again, there are tears in his eyes. ‘What an amazing thing to win the Open in Ireland,’ he says. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Then the noise had begun to dissipate and now it was the silence that jarred. That they both were nervous and edgy was obvious, and natural, but my own nerves - a cloying, nauseating, dread - was harder to excuse. There was a 'Press' band on my sleeve, you see, and we're supposed to be dispassionate.

"Thirty seconds," the starter announced.

But Shane had got to me along the road. And I was invested.

Three years ago . . .

The month is March 2016 and we've just sat down for the first time. Is there a (big) interview in Shane? I'm not sure. For seven years now, since his break-out win at the 2009 Irish Open when he became only the third amateur in history to win on the European Tour, I've stood back from him and thought: 'Hmmmm.'

He wrote a column in The Irish Times that oozed positivity: he was happy with his life, happy with his game and happy with his season. Always. Shane didn't do self-flagellation and people loved him for it. A website (Balls.ie) had proclaimed him 'The Most Beloved Sportsman on the Island.' He was our jolly, bearded giant.

But did that make him interesting?

I started following him on Twitter and he was soon flooding my timeline with thumbs-up emojis, tricolour flags, leprechauns and shamrocks: Shane with the Irish rugby team; Shane with the Irish soccer team; Shane watching a McGregor fight. 'COME ON YOU BOYS IN GREEN.'

Where was the gravitas? The obsession? The dark side? Roy Keane hadn't got to where he is by being Mr Popular, and Roy was the greatest interview of all time. Was there a good interview in Shane? It was time to rattle his cage.

"I'm going to quote you some stuff from your Twitter page," I announce, "and I'd like you to respond."

"Okay," he says.

"'It's days like this I miss home. Love the Six Nations. Good luck to the Irish rugby team on their quest for three-in-a-row. Come On You Boys In Green.' How do you plead? Guilty or Not Guilty?"

"What do you mean? Am I guilty of saying that?"

"Yeah."

"Yeah . . . Guilty."

"'Best of luck to the Irish rugby team. Gutted I can't be there to support. Love this video from Aer Lingus.' Guilty or not guilty?

"Guilty."

"Listening to this song (Sinead O'Connor singing 'The Foggy Dew') and watching this (a Conor McGregor fight) makes me so proud to be Irish.' Guilty or not guilty?"

"Guilty."

"'Great words from McGregor there. Humble in victory and defeat. Spoken like a true champ.' Guilty or not guilty?"

"Guilty."

"That's a lot of guilt," I observe. "How do you propose to atone?"

"What?"

"How do you propose to atone for your guilt?"

"What do you mean?"

"The charge is outrageous populism."

"You're saying I'm trying to be popular?"

"That's the charge."

"Emmm . . . No . . . I don't . . . I didn't make any of those statements to enhance my image or anything like that."

"Is there anything about Ireland or being Irish you're not proud of?"

"No."

"Nothing?"

"Well, I mean . . ."

"The hospital waiting lists? The homeless on our streets? The kids leaving our country in droves? Our clown politicians? I don't see you tweeting about any of that?"

"Well, I suppose . . ."

"Mister fucking Popular, huh?"

He looked at me as if I had just driven a dagger through his heart.

"Enjoying it so far?" I smiled.

Three days later . . .

I transcribed the interview and left that section on the cutting-room floor. There was other stuff, better stuff, that reflected who he really was. When I had observed that it felt odd to be talking to him in a boardroom - we were sitting in the offices of his agents, Horizon Sports, in Dublin - he suggested we drive to Clara and have tea with his mother. But it was his relationship with his father, Brendan, that most struck a chord.

"One of the nicest things about your success is that it's a journey you've shared with your father. There's a story about him following you around during the Leinster Boys Championships."

"The one I won?" he said.

"Yeah."

"That was Skerries in '05."

I quoted him a piece from The Sunday Times: "That afternoon Brendan followed at a distance, not wanting his son to see him for fear it would make him nervous. So he walked behind others, stood in the background and when Shane was coming down the 18th with a chance to win the competition, Brendan was watching from behind a curtain in the clubhouse."

"Yeah, that's true," he smiled.

"Because the thing that jumped out was how soft-hearted he is?"

"Oh, my dad is the softest man in the world. He'll cry at anything - it's unbelievable actually. We were standing on the ninth green in Augusta last year and he was roaring crying!"

"Really?"

"Yeah, anytime I do anything . . . after I won Bridgestone last year . . . or when his first grandchild was born. Yeah, he's very soft, my mother will tell you that. Christmas Day is always a good day for an oul cry off him as well. We slag him about it."

A year later.

He's sitting in a hotel room with Pádraig Harrington in February 2017. It's three days before the Genesis Open at Riviera and we're exploring what makes them different.

"We hit some turbulence on the flight down here last night," Harrington says, "and there was a woman and she was very nervous, gripping the armrests. So I'm there, making things up, and trying to talk her through it."

"He was trying to get her to think positively," Lowry interjects.

"I spent at least 10 minutes trying to calm her down: 'Turbulence has never, ever, taken a plane down . . .'"

"And I said, 'There's a first time for everything'."

"I wanted to strangle him," Harrington laughs.

It's an unlikely friendship. In 2009, Harrington was a three-time Major winner and playing mostly in the US when he arrived home for the Irish Open in Baltray, where the second round was played in a howling gale.

"I was driving home," he says, "and thought: 'That was a great score, I've made the cut.' But the cut line is getting lower and lower and I get home, and log-in, and this lad has shot 10 under par! He's an amateur! Who is he?"

"So you missed the cut?"

"Yeah. And then it was: 'Ahh, he'll blow up,' (because) amateurs always blow up - only two or three amateurs have won in Europe. It just doesn't happen."

"And that was your first time to become aware of him?"

"Yeah, I cursed him out of it: 'Who's your man?' And he was fascinating (to me) when he turned pro - he'd do no warm-up, and nearly missed a tee-time in France. So again it was, 'He's not going to last.' But my life is a lot easier, and a lot more enjoyable here, since Shane has come out."

We also spoke about money . . .

"How much is enough?" I asked

"Money?"

"Yeah."

"I'm not playing for money," Pádraig said.

"As long as I can go to the hole in the wall and something comes out I'm a happy man," Shane concurred. "That's the way I look at it, genuinely."

"It's all relative, "Pádraig said. "I've sold my airplane - I don't have enough to fly (private) - so that would be another level. And it would make my life easier."

"It would make my life easier too," Shane agreed.

"You hurry up and win a Major," Pádraig laughed. "And don't forget me."

Seven months before that.

It's a Sunday afternoon at Oakmont in June 2016 and he's finished second in the US Open. It's his best performance ever at a Major but he's blown a four-shot lead in the final round and it doesn't feel that way.

"I had my dad there and it was Father's Day," he says. "And I wouldn't be one to tell my da I love him, and he wouldn't be one to tell me, but we're very close. I wanted nothing more than to hand him that trophy, and it kind of killed me."

"There's a word - an awful word - often attributed to golfers who endure something like that."

"Choke."

"Yeah."

"I don't think I choked."

"You don't?"

He doesn't reply.

"But it feels like it?" I suggest.

"It probably looks like it."

"Does it feel like it?"

"I don't know. What are you supposed to feel? Did I play the last ten holes in four over? Yes. But it's one of the toughest golf courses in the world, and one of the toughest scenarios you can face. I was hitting the ball well but my putter left me for nine holes - that's where I lost it. I don't think I choked, I just didn't go out and win."

"You said you threw it away: 'It was there for the taking and I didn't take it'."

"But I don't think I choked."

"What's the difference between throwing it away and choking?"

"Yeah, but I don't know what choking is. How do you define it? I would say it's letting your nerves get the better of you - that's how I would define it. Whereas if you just hit bad shots and make mistakes through errors . . . Listen, it's a word we don't like to use. You'd rather say 'I fucked it away' than 'I choked'.

"Your caddie was crying so hard he missed his flight the next day."

"I didn't know that."

"How was it for you?"

"It was brutal, honestly. I woke up on Tuesday morning and just absolutely broke down. It was devastating. I didn't get over it for a long time."

Two years later.

His performance in the nine Majors after Oakmont:

Open: Missed Cut.

PGA: Missed Cut.

Masters: Missed Cut

US Open: T-46

Open: Missed Cut

PGA: T-48

Masters: Not invited.

US Open: Missed Cut.

Open: Missed Cut.

Six months ago.

We're sitting in a room at the Lodge in Pebble Beach talking about his recent win at the HSBC Championships in Abu Dhabi, and the night before the final round. It was his first time to lead since Oakmont, and his advantage, again, was four shots, but he awoke in the middle of the night with his infant daughter playing on his mind.

"Iris?"

"Yeah."

"Tell me about that?"

"Well, obviously things were good. Wendy and Iris were there and I was leading the tournament and it was Neil's (his coach, Neil Manchip) birthday so we went for an early dinner. I was a bit nervous but had no problem getting to sleep and woke up around 2am to go to the toilet with all these thoughts going through my head . . . It was weird.

"You were at the Masters with Iris?"

"Yeah."

"She was following you in the par 3 tournament?"

"Yeah."

"What were the other thoughts?"

"You see yourself winning . . . you see yourself holding the trophy . . . you see yourself walking down the last with a two or three shot lead, happy . . . and then, on the (flip side), you see yourself messing up. I remember talking to Wendy about it that morning when we were having breakfast: ‘No matter what happens today, will you have Iris there for me?’

"So I knew she was going to be there, I was just hoping it would be in good circumstances. You see the soccer players and the rugby players with their kids on the pitch and it was a big thing for me. I thought: ‘I’ll be very disappointed if I don’t win but seeing her will put a smile on my face.'"

"And maybe help your perspective?"

"Yeah."

"Go back to that thought about taking her to the Masters."

"Yeah, I could see her, literally see her, running around the lovely green grass in a little white caddie’s suit.”

"Where did that come from?”

"I don’t know . . . of all the things to come into my head."

"You weren’t born in ’82 when your father won the All-Ireland?"

"No."

"So it’s not a memory of sharing that?"

"No, my memories of him playing are bad (laughs) — playing Division Whatever in the league."

"So it has nothing to do with your relationship with your father?"  

"Well, I went everywhere — and I mean everywhere — with my da when I was younger. He trained Westmeath for three years and I would have been with him at every training session; he used to play soccer for Clara Town and I’d be on the bus with him every Sunday and in the pubs on the way home. So it could be that."

"It just struck me as really unusual — that one of the things you craved most about winning in Abu Dhabi was the chance to take your daughter to Augusta."

"That’s just me. I’m not afraid to say what I think, or what I was thinking, and there were plenty of other thoughts. I thought a lot about Oakmont in those 12 or so hours, but that’s just how the mind works, isn’t it?"

Nine days ago.

Pádraig Harrington is standing in the media mixed zone after the second round of the Open in Portrush. He’s missed the cut, and it’s really, really, hurting him, but he’s just bumped into Shane and said: "You’ve almost made up for it." And now the questions are all one way . . .

"Talk about Shane?"

"I think today says a lot about him. Tough to lead a tournament all the way. I know he wasn’t leading the first day but it would have felt like that. He has done it in the past. He is gaining experience. It looks good (to) me looking in from the outside, it looks very good."

"Will you drop him a text tonight? What would your advice be?"

"Just keep playing his game and expect ebbs and flows. Don’t expect it all to go his way for the next 36 holes. If he sticks in there, the likelihood is he’d have a great chance to win with nine holes to go."

"What impresses you about Shane? He’s a pal of yours. He’s been a classy player for quite a long time?"

"Certainly he’s got great attitude and a winning mentality, no doubt about it. He’s got belief and he’s got a strong game. So that’s never an issue but it always comes down to do you believe he can do it. I believe he believes he can win."

"That’s key?"

"It’s everything. You’ve got to believe it can happen. And I do believe he thinks he’s in that window where he can win Major championships."

"Do you think part of it might be his track record at Oakmont?"

"No, I think it’s a learning experience, Oakmont. I would definitely think he’s a better player because of Oakmont rather than scarred. He’s won big tournaments. It’s not gone all one way or the other. He’s had some tough ones on the golf course and some good ones. Oakmont has definitely got to be a help to him, not a hindrance.

Six months ago.

I’m sitting having a coffee with my brother, Raphael, at home and he’s raving about Shane Lowry. He’s a long-suffering Liverpool fan and it takes a lot to get him excited, but he watched every stroke of Shane’s win in Abu Dhabi. "What about that putt on 17?" he says. "And his shot to the 18th green? Jaysus that took some balls!"

I don’t know that it’s the last time I’m going to see him (he died suddenly, two weeks later); I don’t know Shane will win the Open, but I know Raphael would have been so happy for him. And I think of him every time I watch Shane play.

A week ago.

It’s 5.45 on Sunday evening at Portrush and we’ve found a spot on the hill overlooking the 17th green.

"Can I relax now?" Brendan Lowry says.

"Wait until the drive on 18," I smile.

A minute later, his son comes marching down the fairway with a huge grin on his face, acknowledging the thunderous applause. It’s over now. He’s done it. And when I glance at Brendan again, there are tears in his eyes. "What an amazing thing to win the Open in Ireland," he says.

I follow him up the 18th fairway, and watch from a distance as he joins Bridget (wife), Sinead (daughter), Alan (son), Wendy and Iris, and a small group of friends behind the green. Shane holes the winning putt, hugs his wife and daughter and starts walking towards his parents. His father has his arms raised and a huge smile on his face but the first embrace is for his mother.

And the moment is class.

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