Thursday 26 April 2018

'Shane's got likeability' - Shane Lowry set to rival Rory McIlroy's status as Ireland's best-paid golfer

The larger-than-life man from Offaly came so close to winning a first Major this week. Now this most unlikely of superstars is poised to join the high-earning elite of golf.

Shane Lowry of Ireland watches a putt on the sixth green during the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.
Shane Lowry of Ireland watches a putt on the sixth green during the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.
Maverick: US pro-golfer John Daly

Joe O'Shea

He's not Rory McIlroy or Johnny Sexton. And he is certainly not Conor McGregor, the flash, brash, walking tattoo parlour also known as 'The Notorious MMA'.

He is Shane Lowry. And while he may not, in some ways, fit the modern concept of the professional athlete, the 29-year-old from Clara, Co Offaly, is set to become one of the very few rivals to McIlory's status as Ireland's best-paid and best-known global superstar.

In terms of dollar earnings, Lowry should soon reach a bracket our best rugby and soccer stars can only dream about.

The golfer's second-place finish at the US Open last weekend - after a dramatic last round that featured a bizarre rules challenge for eventual winner Dustin Johnson - was a huge disappointment for Lowry and his many fans.

It was the closest yet that he has come to winning a Major, a bad day at the office after he had taken a four-shot lead into the final round.

As Johnson took the plaudits, a clearly dejected Lowry admitted: "It was there for the taking, I didn't take it. I'm sure I'll learn a lot from today. I don't know what it is yet.

"The more I think about it, the more upset I get. I just have to get on with it."

These were typically straight, no-PR-gloss comments from a professional golfer who - to the casual observer at least - sometimes looks like he has wandered on to the wrong course in search of a four-ball with some mates from the office.

At 6ft 1in and carrying 15st and change, Lowry does not fit the current stereotype of the sleek, gym-toned professional golfer.

His on-course uniform tends to seem loose-fitting and colour-muted when compared to the likes of US pro Ricky Fowler, the boyband-esque tee-box peacock who favours spray-on slacks and torso-hugging polo-shirts in shades ranging from shocking pink to nuclear-orange.

It's easy to make too much of Lowry's big silhouette and blokey demeanour, and almost every profile mentions his fondness for the odd pint and his simple tastes in, well, just about everything.

A GAA fanatic (father Brendan was a star footballer with Offaly and an All-Ireland medal winner in the miraculous year of 1982), he has been known to tune into big games wherever he is in the world.

"Shane is an everyman figure, the kind of guy you could definitely see yourself having a pint with," says Michael O'Keeffe, a Dublin-based sports marketing expert.

"He exploded out of the amateurs, now he's ranked 25th in the world... top 10 in Europe. But he's still got that ordinary guy perception about him, he's got a likeability factor that you can't buy, and you certainly can't fake.

"He's just come very close to winning his first Major. Yes, he came up short on the last day, but he didn't have a meltdown and he proved he's got the talent and the psychological strength which will see him back in that position again.

"And once you win a Major, it just puts you into a different bracket. With his likeability, his everyman image - and I've worked with him, and the guy is genuinely affable, great company, you won't hear anybody say a bad word about him - that represents a very attractive package, if you want to put it that way, for big sponsors."

O'Keeffe, who is the chief executive of PSG Communications in Dublin and has worked with many top-line sports stars, believes Lowry is poised for take-off in terms of sponsorship possibilities.

"He's got three main earning streams at the moment. What he wins on the course, sponsorship and corporate golf days. In the US or China, a high-profile player can earn up to $100,000 for playing in a corporate golf day," says O'Keeffe.

He also points out that golf, unlike many sports, has a truly global reach and attracts the blue-chip sponsors such as the big international banks.

"You look at a guy like Conor McGregor and he's making his money from the pay-per-view, you don't see HSBC or whoever sponsoring the fights," he says "With golf, it's a game that attracts the big corporations. With Shane Lowry, yes, he came up short at the Open, but he still got $745,000 for tying second, he's earned $1.4m this year alone and he's raised his profile in a big way".

In terms of sponsors, Lowry already has deals with Bank of Ireland, golf-equipment manufacturers Srixon and the Irish-themed, Dubai-based hotel and hospitality people, Bonnington Tower & McGettigan's Irish Pub Group.

These deals were inked in 2013 to 2014, when Lowry was a rising star but not in the top bracket. It may take a Major win to move him up to those heights, but his agents will already be putting out the feelers to the kind of blue-chip sponsors - the likes of Nike - who can give him a huge pay-day.

Sports sponsorship has changed in recent years with likeability and the connectivity to fans a big factor. In 2015, McIlroy's social-media presence was estimated to be worth $175m to his sponsors.

Lowry, who married his long-term partner Wendy Honner earlier this year, will play for Ireland at the Olympics in Rio in August (that's assuming he does not pull out because of the Zika virus, as McIlroy did this week).

And Lowry is also expected to be part of the European Ryder Cup team in the autumn.

The real possibility of an Olympic medal, a successful Ryder Cup and - maybe - a Major win in the not-to-distant future would certainly cement the 29-year-old's status as one of the stars of the international game.

For the GAA fanatic from Clara, the future is looking about as bright as a pair Ricky Fowler signature slacks.

We might admire the clean-living, super-fit star athletes of sport, the Roger Federer or Cristiano Ronaldo types who put gym-time and superfoods above all else. But we tend to love the mavericks, the everyman stars who put more trust in their natural talents than personal trainers or nutritionists.

Some sports lend themselves to a lax approach to refuelling. Golf has always had a place for the likes of John Daly or Miguel Ángel Jiménez, mercurial pros whose idea of pre-game stretching involves reaching for a cigar or a beer.

In snooker, Alex Higgins appeared to follow the Keith Richards' 30-day diet plan while Aussie cricketer Shane Warne once admitted: "I just have to look at food or a pint of beer and I put on a kilo."

The era of the rotund, red-faced sportsman may be receding into the past but most fans still love to look at a 'big guy' driving long or winning big and think: "You know, if I practised a bit, and cut down on kebabs, that could be me."

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