Thursday 21 February 2019

Roy Curtis: '30 months on from his lowest golfing moment, Shane Lowry finally found redemption in the desert'

Shane Lowry of Ireland holds the trophy after winning the final round of the Abu Dhabi Championship golf tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Shane Lowry of Ireland holds the trophy after winning the final round of the Abu Dhabi Championship golf tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Roy Curtis

WITH streetfighter grit, a short game as cultivated as a van Gogh brushstroke and a sunburst smile, Shane Lowry transformed the Arabian Desert into his palace of atonement.

Here, 30 months on from a traumatic US Open Sunday when the wheels fell off an enormous golfing talent, the Oakmount scar tissue was washed away in the flood of Celtic emotion that drenched this arid sand kingdom.

One of the good guys of Irish sport was back somewhere very close to the top of the golfing world.

A beautiful, nerve-jangling, uplifting, compelling, career-changing kind of glory unspooled in the Persian Gulf.

In a sensational finale, one where he drilled down and struck the richest well of shot-making courage, Lowry not only won for the first time in four years, pocketed $1.2m, soared back into the world's top 50 and unlocked the gates to Augusta National in April.

More than that, he remade his empire, found redemption, banished the angst which came with a very different final round on that broiling 2016 afternoon outside Pittsburgh.

Then, Lowry had entered the US Open's Sunday coliseum four shots clear, poised to join his friends, Harrington, McIlroy, Clarke and McDowell on the major winner’s rostrum.

The excruciating, stomach-sickening fall into perdition that instead unfolded might have come from the darkest imaginings of Stephen King.

All those old certainties which had underpinned Lowry’s game since he won the Irish Open as 22-year-old amateur abandoned him. He fired a 76 and the main chance was lost.

Though he finished second, it felt empty, like two hundred and second.

The long-term effect was apparent enough, a kind of sporting post-traumatic stress:  it had been some 1200 days since he last won, his world ranking tumbling like an unmoored elevator clacking downwards through the floors.

So, yesterday felt like so much more than a tournament win, even a $7m prize fund event with those American big dogs Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka among those broken by the Clara resurgence.

It certainly meant much more: that was evident as 2016’s grim dance giving way to an impromptu 18th green celebratory jig with his 20-month old daughter Iris.

It was not just the ending of the famine, not even that Lowry – with his easy-going way, his lust for life, his everyman physique - scores unusually highly on the likeability scale.

No, it was the manner of victory, the refusal to bend or buckle under tumultuous pressure, the resolve and then the brilliance even as another car-crash afternoon loomed.

Lowry had seen an overnight three-shot lead over the stoic Springbok, Richard Sterne, morph into a three shot deficit in little more than the time it takes his caddie, Bo Martin, to remove the cover from his player's driver.

Stephen King was back at the keyboard, unveiling more cruel and haunting theatre.

Lowry’s response was that of a natural born champion, of an implacable prizefighter hauling himself from the canvass, declining to submit to the ferocious physical and psychological damage of those early South African haymakers.

Statistics will always only tell part of the story, for there are no numbers to measure courage, to the connection an unbending fighter makes with his audience.

Lowry birdied holes 12 and 13, conjured a miraculous up and down when narrow sided in deep rough on 17 and lasered a career 281-yard 3-wood flying on a left-to-right arc to pin-high on 18.

When he two-putted for deliverance, he looked to the sky, brought his tightly clenched fists his face, a tsunami of emotion buffeting his bearded features.

Here was sheer, undiluted, overpowering joy, something close to delirium. A sense that the hardest time had been served. Rapture.

There was a quiver in his voice, moistness in his eyes as he spoke of the journey.

"I completely thought I was gone," he admitted of those tormenting early exchanges that seemed set to impregnate another afternoon of promise with poison.

"I didn’t think I had that in me, the putts I holed.  Oh God, I’m so happy.  It’s been a long time.

"I woke up a couple of times last night, picture this one (Iris) running around Augusta in little green suit caddying for me on the Par 3 course. That’s how this game plays with the emotions."

Even if Lowry has won a WGC event – the tournaments just below the majors – as far back as 2015, here is a moment that could launch his career onto a life-altering trajectory.

Having displayed such fortitude under sustained fire from the siege-guns of fate, his belief in his own powers to correct any situation will surely flower like an Amen Corner azalea.

Lowry has always been such a free-flowing natural talent, custodian of one of the most thrilling imaginations in golf.

Here, though, he reached a higher plain of mental resolve.

If it took until those spellbinding finishing holes for him to climb to the level that had brought his opening round 62, still his putting under pressure and his iron will were hugely impressive.

Many will have watched this and concluded that the son of Offaly’s 1982 immortal, Brendan, might be a shrewder bet than Rory McIlroy to be the next Irish major winner.

Almost ten years on from turning professional, a Ryder Cup fire also consumes him.

"This puts me (in line to achieve my goal) for the next 18 months.  To be on the plane to Wisconsin with Paddy (Harrington)," he said, his features as azure as the Arabian sky.

If there was a Stephen King title to yesterday’s epic novel, it had none of the dark master’s foreboding.

Yes, this was deliverance, but it was upbeat, soaring and beautiful.

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