Shane Lowry on how fatherhood has helped his game, being a 'big time player' and Ryder Cup ambitions
Every hacker knows that the pitter patter of little feet can quickly herald the death knell for your golf game. But for Shane Lowry, the arrival of baby Iris in March has had quite the opposite effect.
The kid that won the Irish Open as a fresh-faced 22-year-old is all grown up and looking to 2018 and beyond with high hopes and big dreams.
"I am very happy in my own skin now," he says of life 'en famille' and his place in the greater scheme of things.
"I don't know what it is. Maybe when you have a child, it makes a difference. It is probably no coincidence that since Iris was born, my golf has been quite good. It puts life into perspective."
It's no exaggeration to say that Lowry's golf has been a little more than "quite good" recently and his strong finish to the year has, quite rightly, left him feeling more excited and optimistic about his game than ever.
In fact, he's in such a positive frame of mind that talk of winning Majors and playing in Ryder Cups - two topics that once sent his blood pressure soaring - are now themes he takes easily in his stride.
Dealing with such questions is all part of life as one of the best golfers in the world. And as much as he hopes he can continue on the upward curve, contend for Majors and make his Ryder Cup debut next year, the Offaly man's acceptance of the fact that golf is a fickle mistress has made for an easier life.
The vicissitudes of the game were brought home to him in the summer of 2016 when he went to The Open at Royal Troon believing he had the game to follow up on his US Open near-miss at Oakmont and contend for a Major once more.
"I genuinely believe that, without sounding too cocky, that I am a big-time player," he said at the time.
"I like the big tournaments. I love playing in front of the big crowds. I love playing late on Saturdays and Sundays. I think it's where you want to be."
The draw with Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose just heightened the sense of expectation and the result was a major let down.
"I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me," he said after an opening 78 took him right back down to earth.
There would be no Ryder Cup debut under Darren Clarke at Hazeltine, just a slow slide down the world rankings.
It took him until last May's BMW PGA at Wentworth, just two months after the birth of baby Iris, to record his first top-10 finish since Oakmont.
Slowly but surely he has found his feet again and that runner-up finish in a Major is seen for what it truly was - a big stepping stone, not a stumbling block.
While his short game has yet to return to its imperious best (he was ranked a disappointing 163rd for scrambling in the US this year), his putting improved to such an extent that he finished the PGA Tour season ranked first inside 10 feet and 10th overall.
"Someone only said that to me yesterday," he says of his putting prowess. "And it's mad because from January to April I felt like I couldn't get it into a bucket.
Obviously from April onwards I really putted well. The one thing I struggle on is slow greens, and the greens in America are a lot quicker, so it's nice to feel that when I get on quick greens, I can putt well.
"To be honest, the only part of my game that needs sharpening up is my short game.
"But I think it will improve when I get to live in America for a while next year and practise on firm greens. I will be playing more golf in better conditions."
It's no wonder Lowry is celebrating the season of goodwill, peace and harmony to all men with a greater sense of calm than ever.
He's still waiting for his first win since the 2015 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational but after making 139 birdies in his last 30 rounds of the year (not counting that runner-up spot in partnership with Graeme McDowell in the 54-hole QBE Shootout), he knows that he's just one win away from taking that next big step in his career.
That runner-up finish behind Jon Rahm in the European Tour's season-ending DP World Tour Championship has given him a warm and fuzzy feeling about 2018 and his decision to base his family in Florida for the first half of the year.
It's a move that will eliminate more than half a dozen transatlantic trips, the domino effect of which will be more PGA Tour starts and, he hopes, more chances to win.
"The last two years have been tough but especially this year," he says of the demands of competing on both sides of the pond.
"It will be nice to have Wendy and Iris with me most of next year."
It's a decision that makes perfect sense given that his PGA Tour exemption for winning in Akron runs out at the end of next season.
He cannot afford to finish outside the top 125 in the FedEx Cup points, as he did this year, or he will lose his US card and fail to make the Ryder Cup team.
"Guys out here play 25, 30 events, and to try to compete against those guys in 15 events, I don't think it's doable," he says of the move. "I'm hoping I can play 20 next year, maybe even one or two more."
Ranked as high as 17th in the world towards the end of 2015, Lowry fell to 93rd this year before finishing eighth, 12th and second in his last three events to move back to the fringes of the top 50.
"It was nice to make that move because it really gives me something to work towards," he says of his jump to 61st and the chances of making the top 50 by the end of March so he can book his ticket to the Masters.
"My main goal is to get into Augusta in April and how I do that, we'll have to wait and see.
"Hopefully it comes from a win in America but from 61st in the world, it just takes a couple of good weeks to jump inside the top 50 to get there.
I am just going to play quite a lot at the start of the year and hopefully I will be there in April. There is plenty of golf to be played between now and then so you never know what could happen."
Lowry will kick-start 2018 with five PGA Tour events in succession - the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Genesis Open in LA before he heads for "home" for the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, where he is renting a house near fellow Offaly man Stephen Grant.
"It's funny," he says. "We have a very short memory when it comes to golf. But I feel really good going into the winter break because even though I didn't win this year, I feel like I have had a decent season.
"I played really well towards the end of the year and the last eight tournaments, bar Italy, I felt I was there or thereabouts contending for the lead at some stage.
"I don't know why it all came together but it did. Maybe I was a bit more in my comfort zone playing in Europe. But I just felt like I wasn't going to hit a bad shot. I just felt really good on the course."
With "just" three wins on his CV and only two as a professional, Lowry has never been totally at ease talking about Major wins or Ryder Cup appearances.
But having turned professional in 2009, shortly after winning the Irish Open as an amateur, he will celebrate his 31st birthday on April 2 believing he has another 10 to 15 years to truly make his mark on the game.
"Next season will be my 10th season as a professional so I feel I have been around the block a couple of times," he says with a laugh.
"I feel great and I'm only young, so hopefully I can do something special in the next 10 years because I feel I have learned a lot already and that finish to the season really has given me a boost.
"I really feel that over the last two years in America, I have almost served my time. I am quite comfortable over there now and I really know what I am doing. Like I said, I am really looking forward to next year."
Lowry also knows that he must get back to his best around the greens if he's to win on the PGA Tour and put himself in contention to make Thomas Bjorn's European Ryder Cup team.
He doesn't want to get another phone call from Bjorn telling him he isn't getting a captain's pick having already experienced that feeling recently.
"He called me about the EurAsia Cup just to tell me he wasn't picking me," he says.
"To be honest, there wasn't much Ryder Cup talk in there. I just told him that I really want to be on the team and I am going to do my best to make it. And that was it really.
"To be honest, I feel I could add a lot to that Ryder Cup team if I made it. I feel like my game is definitely good enough and I will be good in that environment as well.
It is one of my big goals next year to make the Ryder Cup team - I feel like it is my time to make it. So I just have to go out for the next six to eight months and do the business and make sure I am there. And that means I have to win as soon as I can again."
As things stand, Lowry is just outside the eight automatic qualifiers for Bjorn's team with Paul Dunne currently sixth in the pecking order.
There are four wildcards but he knows that as a rookie, he can't afford to pin his hopes on a call from Bjorn.
"If you look at it, Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton are almost on the team already," he says. "So there's two rookies straight away. And they don't like picking rookies.
"To be honest, I don't classify myself as a rookie really but saying that, I am probably going to have to make the team automatically. So that means winning once for sure, maybe twice, and they'll have to be big tournaments.
"I am also trying to make the team from the World Points List too, so that makes it a bit harder as well. But listen, I am going to give myself every chance I can."
Making the Ryder Cup team via the World Points List will be impossible if he doesn't return to the world's top 50 and secure his place in all four Majors and the World Golf Championships.
The reality is that he has only qualified for one of next year's Majors for certain - The Open at Carnoustie - and none of the World Golf Championships.
Despite that, the Irish public expects him to challenge and having struggled with those high expectations in the past, he's now embracing them.
"I don't mind talking about Majors and I want to do well in them," he says.
"It's funny. I remember driving up to St Andrews with Paul Dunne after he won the British Masters and I said, 'Bet you can't wait to start answering questions about when you are going to win your first Major!'
"But look, I always say I am very lucky to be doing what I am doing and playing at the top end of world golf.
"I have my card on two tours and look, winning a Major is the main goal for anyone with any ambitions at the top of world golf. But I have to make sure I am in them first and that's my first goal for the start of the year - to make sure I am in Augusta and make sure I am in those WGCs."
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