Tuesday 12 November 2019

Pressure is for Bridgestones

Dermot Gilleece relives last week's stunning WGC victory with Shane Lowry

Shane Lowry celebrates after a birdie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the World Golf Championships
Shane Lowry celebrates after a birdie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the World Golf Championships
'My only thought was to clear that tree in front of me. I hit the shot and hear nothing. Next thing I see the ball landing on the green. I couldn't believe it. Pure excitement. I have the tournament won'

Dermot Gilleece

At a time when tournament performances are being increasingly influenced by scientific factors, Shane Lowry stands apart as a disarmingly simple practitioner of his craft. In fact, it was this innate simplicity which made a remarkable success possible for him in truly torrid circumstances at Firestone last Sunday.

The climactic stage of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational contained all the ingredients for a reflective discourse on pressure in sport. Yet Lowry was conscious only of an enveloping calm which allowed him to accomplish a memorable triumph.

It brought to mind a charming story from his coach, Neil Manchip, on seeing him as an 18-year-old in a trial for the European Boys Championship at The Island in May, 2005. When Lowry sank a difficult four-footer on the 18th a bystander remarked: "You were under a bit of pressure there."

It brought the response "pressure is for tyres", in a rich, midlands accent.

Ten years on, Lowry smiled at the memory. "You heard that from Neil, didn't you?" he said. "And to be honest, I don't think pressure meant anything to me at that time."

Heat was departing from a bright August sun as we sat in the late afternoon behind the 18th green at Whistling Straits, where Lowry was clearly at peace with the world.

"I know that getting over the line is always important," he explained, "but I don't tend to sit down and think about things. I don't analyse what happened. Like, when I was a kid playing amateur golf, I would always be looking forward to the next week rather than what had happened the week before. I was conscious of having something which made me able to win, especially in my last few years as an amateur - which is massive in this game."

When I reminded him that two months after those events at The Island, he won the Leinster Boys Championship at Skerries, he proudly listed later victories - like the Irish Close (2007), and the West of Ireland and North of Ireland Championships of 2008. And there were wins abroad.

"I won quite a bit as an amateur and I've never questioned how that was possible. Sitting down and analysing things would be going down the wrong path, as far as I'd be concerned. Like going out there on the back nine today and feeling a bit off, which I suppose was an inevitable reaction to the adrenaline rush of Firestone. But I missed only one shot in nine holes.

"Instead of analysing that, I decided heading for the 18th that I'd finish with a few nice shots and pack things in for the day. There would be no going to the range to hit more balls. I'm playing well and my confidence is high."

At this point, there was a gentle interjection from his partner of the afternoon, Pádraig Harrington, who handed over a fold of dollar bills. "That's $200," said Lowry with a big smile. "Very welcome. To be honest, being paid by Pádraig is a bit unusual. He's been doing well in the chipping competitions of late."

Only 24 hours previously, in a special short-game area to the right of the practice ground, Lowry and Harrington were engaged in one of their regular duels. "There's little between them as chippers, but Pádraig's the better bunker player," said an interested observer, Pete Cowen, the prominent English coach. "I know Shane loses regularly to Pádraig, but it's got to be worth it, learning from a three-time Major champion."

As if to order, Harrington then produced a bunker shot of stunning quality. After nominating a target 30 yards away, though he couldn't see the bottom of the pin, Harrington proceeded to execute the most glorious shot from sand, so precise that it hit the bottom of the pin and came to rest two feet from the hole.

The thin, self-satisfied grin, got me thinking about an iconic movie called The Cincinnati Kid, which I had seen nearly 50 years ago. Dealing with the age-old theme of brash youth confronting the wisdom of experience, it starred Steve McQueen as the eponymous hero who makes a name for himself as a professional gambler.

The entire movie had to do essentially with his progress towards a showdown with 'The Man', the ageing Lancey Howard played by the inimitable Edward G Robinson. This took the form of a marathon poker game in which The Kid looked to have the measure of The Man, only to be undone with everything he possessed at stake. To his great misfortune, The Kid filled a house of aces only for Edward G to come up with an unthinkable straight flush.

When the cards were put on the table and a crushed McQueen attempted to come to terms with the consequences of it all, Edward G uttered the memorable line: "You're good, Kid, but as long as I'm around you'll always be second-best."

Rubbing the $200 between thumb and forefinger, Lowry said: "That's nice. Nice."

When I wondered what he had learned from Harrington, he replied: "Well, I'm a good chipper. And Pádraig's great as well. But you can learn so much, just hanging around with someone like that. Since I turned pro I've been very lucky, with Graeme [McDowell] at Horizon Sports. I knocked around with Graeme a lot. Then I started knocking around with Pádraig as well. They've been two very good people as far as I'm concerned. As positive influences, both of them have done a lot in the game.

"I have found that doing the right things in life has a lot to do with being with the right people. If you ask me what I've learned from Pádraig, I can't be specific. But I believe that simply doing different things together has made me a better person and a better player. Watching how himself and Graeme go about their business, you just learn."

But did it account for the remarkable fortitude Lowry displayed over Firestone's final holes last Sunday? I recounted an observation about pressure as told by Tom Watson in the wake of his 1982 Open Championship triumph at Royal Troon where, by his own admission, he "backed into the title" with Nick Price notable among those who faltered.

Though pressure, according to Watson, was widely perceived as being about trembling hands, quivering lips and a wrenching gut, it was, in fact essentially about decision-making. It was about having the composure to recognise wrong messages from a pressurised brain. "One thing about playing under pressure is that you don't know what it is until you're experiencing it," he said.

Lowry suddenly became animated. "I agree with that," he said. "I think that if you win a tournament, you will be able to look back on a lot of correct decisions at crucial moments. For instance, my game plan at Firestone was to hit driver off 17 in every round, though I hit a four-iron on the Saturday because it was so much downwind.

"Anyway, as I stood on the tee for the last time on Sunday, there was a little man in my head telling me to take driver, even though I figured I wouldn't be able to hit the fairway. And my caddie Dermot [Byrne] would have let me hit it, because that's the way we play. Still, instinct told me the safe play was to hit the four-iron. By that stage I knew Bubba [Watson] had missed his birdie putt on 18, so a par, par finish was all I needed to win."

Then another remarkable thing happened. When a seven-iron second shot on the 400-yard hole was pulled onto the back fringe, a familiar image suddenly flashed into Lowry's mind. "Studying that chip, I remembered Pádraig having exactly the same chip on the 16th when he won the Honda Classic [last March]. So that got me thinking - right foot, lob wedge. And when telling Dermot about this last Monday, he said 'You know Shane, I was thinking the very same thing'.

"Seeing Harrington play the shot on television, stayed in my memory for some reason. It was a tough chip, up and over a hill and it finished five feet short of the hole. I reckon my ball needed only six inches more pace and it was stone dead. Instead, I was left with a smelly putt."

The next couple of minutes involved the most crucial decision he would make in pursuit of the title. Having eyed up the putt, he decided it was half a ball outside the left lip. But suddenly, he heard this voice from the crowd shouting: "The putt stays left." This was based on an earlier effort from Lowry's playing partner, Steven Bowditch, which had missed the target.

"Swear to God," said Lowry. "It could have been unnerving, but I kept telling myself that this was my time. Knowing my own capabilities, I had been jealous of people doing so well, which made me all the more determined to hole it. No negativity at all. When I struck the putt on the line I had chosen, it was never going anywhere except right in the middle of the hole.

"Do you know what? It was almost like that all week. I really felt I could win. Yet, I was nervous down the stretch. Dermot said that when he handed me the ball back on 16, my hand was shaking. It's almost like you tell yourself you're nervous, then you just get on with it. Try and stop yourself being nervous and you'll only make it worse.

"When things don't go your way, you feel like everything is rushed. Yet when things go your way, it's as if everything is happening slowly. You can remember every detail. That must be what the zone is, though I don't know if I've ever experienced it before."

In this buoyant mental state, he headed for the 464-yard 18th and one of the more fearsome drives in golf. "I've no idea where the calmness came from, except that it was still there," he said. "And yet I've never been so pumped as I was on the 18th tee, knowing that if I make par, I win the tournament.

"My shots have a sort of neutral shape at the moment and I picked a tree down the left. There's a Christmas tree on the right and if you're underneath that, it's game over. I pulled the drive. I didn't hook it. And the best thing about it was that I hit it good.

"Obviously, I knew it [the outcome] wasn't going to be great, but I'm convinced I'll still get up and down for a par. I stayed calm as if knowing this was going to happen. I was mentally prepared for anything. Meanwhile, Dermot is telling me stories about all sorts of things, including Ayrton Senna. Anything that came into his mind, just to distract me.

"A good caddie is very important in a situation like that, and I get on well with Dermot, though this was also his first time with a WGC title at stake. And there was a lot of money involved in the whole thing, though I wasn't thinking about money. I was just thinking about winning.

"Fifty yards from the ball, I could see I had a shot. All of a sudden I felt upbeat. Thank God for that. With 127 yards to the front, I went for the green with my 52-degree sand wedge, which I'd normally hit 120 yards. I'm really pumped up. Get the ball around the green - anywhere that will give me the chance of an up and down. With 54 out of 54 holed from six feet in, I wasn't going to miss one more for the title.

"My only thought was to clear that tree in front of me. I hit the shot and hear nothing. Next thing I see the ball landing on the green. I couldn't believe it. Pure excitement. I know I have the tournament won. The putt is about a cup to the right, up and over a hill. Twelve feet. All about pace. I lag it down and it goes in the front door. I've done it, with a bit to spare. And when it was all over I was conscious of having chased down some serious players in the final round. Which was pretty good."

The sparkle in his eyes as he relived those moments told of something very precious which he will treasure for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, there are other mountains to be climbed. "I've got so much to achieve in the game, so much to look forward to next year," he said. "Getting back to playing regular events like the Dunhill Links and other tournaments towards the end of the year. Then the Olympics next year, the Ryder Cup, playing again in every Major."

And what impact will all of this have on a hugely popular sportsman? "I feel I'm doing everything right," he said. "Home is important. I don't see myself living out of Ireland. Looking at how well Pádraig has done makes him a great role model for me.

"I live in Dublin now with Wendy (his fiancée) and, although I don't often get home to Clara, I suppose it represents what I am. I get down to see matches with my dad. That's what I like to do away from golf. I'll be at the All-Ireland final this year and all the Clara matches I can go to. That's just the way I am and the way I plan to stay."

He concluded: "Even with everything that's happened, when I go down home I can still be myself. That's very important to me."

He's off on a week's holiday, starting on Tuesday. But, before that, there's a bit of a party planned down in Clara with the prospect of "a few shandies" being downed. Simple stuff. The newly-crowned Bridgestone Invitational champion wouldn't have it any other way.

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