Thursday 22 August 2019

Lowry's home from home

Esker Hills’ proud members recall the making of an Open champion

Local hero: The crowd erupts at Esker Hills clubhouse as Shane Lowry seals Open victory
Local hero: The crowd erupts at Esker Hills clubhouse as Shane Lowry seals Open victory

Brian Keogh

Esker Hills will never earn the same kudos as Royal Portrush but the late Christy O'Connor Jnr must have been smiling as a man who taught himself the game on humps and hollows of his Co Offaly design lifted the old Claret Jug on Sunday.

Like his uncle, Christy Senior, Junior came close a few times in The Open, finishing tied fifth in 1976 and tied third behind Sandy Lyle at Sandwich in 1985, opening with a 64 to take a four-stroke lead before coming back to the field.

He grew up with a golf club in his hand, and while Lowry was a later starter, he too fell in love with the game as a child at O'Connor's wonderful design, teaching himself all the shots that served him so well last week.

"Sometimes kids would come in and then they'd play and go home, and Shane would go out and play another nine holes," Ray Molloy, one of four club directors, told a UK radio station on Sunday. "We saw that from a very early stage, he wanted to play more.

"When he got to 14, his school mates were trying to hit the green; he was trying to hit the pin. That was the difference.

"Then he started backspinning them.

"He'd learned all the shots. If he missed a shot from a spot, he'd go back that evening with ten balls and practice it and perfect it. He got no tuition until he was 15; he was genuinely self-taught."

The world's press descended on Esker Hills on Sunday to speak to all the members who'd watched Lowry come up through the ranks, famously breaking through at the 2005 Leinster Boys

"Rain, hail or snow, Shane Lowry was out there," said longtime Esker Hills member John O'Shea.

"There's no airs and graces here. What you see is what you get," said John's brother, Willie.

Lowry's father Brendan is heavily involved with the Juniors, and the new Open champion makes sure every participant in the junior events he sponsors gets some sort of prize

"The awkward stances and shots have served him well," said Willie Allen, the club's longtime greenskeeper. "He's a natural talent."

Lowry has his own parking space at the club, and his achievements are posted everywhere.

"I have a good short game, and I learned all the difficult shots by playing off hilly lies and playing into tough greens around Esker Hills," he said of his Esker Hills upbringing and those long treks by bike from Clara to the course.

"Playing at Esker Hills taught me so much about the game. I just loved heading out there from school and taking a club or two out to chip around and teach myself those shots."

A tough but fair course, the success of Esker Hills is a testament to O'Connor Jnr's design talent in that it requires little physical effort to get around as the course bobs and weaves, wending its way through rising hills and plunging valleys.

Maybe it's the stunning scenery - the abundant trees and the stunning wildflowers - that makes it such a pleasant walk. But with so many holes isolated from one another in narrow valleys, the only distraction is the occasional toot from the Dublin-Galway train as it hurtles past.

It was a playground for Lowry as a child, and now that he's Open champion, the club is hoping the Home of the Open Champion will attract a few more visitors.

Given its beauty and the unrivalled hospitality of its people, the €30 green fee is a true bargain.

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