Wednesday 21 August 2019

Eammon Sweeney: 'Lowry shows you can be a star on and off fairways'

Nice guys can finish first as modest Open hero with GAA roots enjoys emotional Portrush win

Open Season: Shane Lowry soaks it all in as he and his caddie Brian ‘Bo’ Martin walk up the 18th, pursued by hordes of delighted supporters. Photo: Sportsfile
Open Season: Shane Lowry soaks it all in as he and his caddie Brian ‘Bo’ Martin walk up the 18th, pursued by hordes of delighted supporters. Photo: Sportsfile

Eammon Sweeney

There will never be a more popular Irish sporting victory. Few sportsmen from this country are so universally loved as Shane Lowry. And few victories have been so emotionally satisfying as his triumph at Portrush.

We're often told that aggression, egotism and humourlessness are indispensable ingredients of the winning mentality. But this man has always been different. He plays with a smile on his face, a devil-may-care attitude and a sense that sport is an adventure to be enjoyed, not a trial to be endured.

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Some sportsmen's egos are visible from space. You'd need a microscope to detect Lowry's. A powerful one. He's the sportsman who seems like the rest of us. He just happens to be a genius.

There's an old-fashioned, almost innocent quality about Shane Lowry, a reminder of a different style of Irish hero from a time we preferred wit, ease and modesty to shouting the odds. We don't see that often enough these days and deep down we hanker for it.

Yet sometimes we worry that the apostles of mean-spiritedness are right when they say winners must embrace their inner bastard. Worry no more. The 2019 British Open is Exhibit A for the case that nice guys can finish first.

Three years ago the apotheosis of Lowry seemed at hand when he led by four shots going into the fourth round of the US Open at Oakmont. What followed was nightmarish. It wasn't the loss itself so much as the subsequent catastrophic loss of form.

Shane Lowry just another face in the crowd at the recent Galway v Mayo clash in Limerick. Photo: Sportsfile
Shane Lowry just another face in the crowd at the recent Galway v Mayo clash in Limerick. Photo: Sportsfile

He'd gone to Oakmont on the verge of the world's Top 20. Afterwards the fall was fast and hard. It reached rock bottom after last year's Open, where he missed the cut for the fourth year in a row and found himself 92nd in the world.

The first signs of revival arrived in October when second place in the Andalucia Masters hoisted him up to 70th. In January he won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and leaped 33 places up the rankings. Top 10 finishes on the PGA Tour in April, May and June showed the eye of the tiger had been regained.

There's a movie called The Best of Times starring Robin Williams as a man so haunted by a mistake which cost his team victory in an important high school football game he persuades his old team-mates to replay it so he can make amends.

You don't have to be a sports star to know that feeling of regret for what might have been. Who doesn't wish they could go back and make a better job of some defining moment? But life can be cruel that way. Sometimes you only get one shot.

Was it going to be like that for Shane Lowry? Jean van de Velde never did win the Open and neither did Doug Sanders after he'd missed a three-foot putt to beat Jack Nicklaus at St Andrews in 1970.

Yet Lowry got his Groundhog Day. Yesterday morning he was once more four shots clear entering the final round of a Major. When he hit his first shot into the rough and second into a deep bunker, while Tommy Fleetwood's second gave him a birdie chance, you could hardly watch. A birdie for Fleetwood, a double bogey for Lowry and the lead would have been reduced to a single shot in a single hole.

Instead Lowry sank a tricky eight foot putt to escape with a bogey, Fleetwood missed his for the birdie and things were never so fraught again. The wind blew, the rain lashed and the best golfers in the world were mastered by weather and course.

Meanwhile our hero kept on keeping on. He is not one of golf's grinders, but he would grind this one out. By the 10th he was six shots clear, though the butterflies returned briefly when three bogeys cut the lead to four with six left.

However, after the Englishman double bogeyed the 14th and Lowry birdied the 15th the final holes were more cavalcade than contest. Fleetwood seemed less a rival than an eyewitness to history.

As Lowry walked up towards the 18th green he took off his cap as though eager to feel the moment as intensely as possible. Then he uncorked a smile as open and bright as the sun coming out over The Bog of Allen on a Midsummer morning.

There is something unmistakably Offaly about the way Shane Lowry plays the game. It conjures up memories of Seamus Darby nudging, turning and shooting; Johnny Flaherty palming the ball back over his shoulder; Offaly hurling teams of the Nineties who thought winning was so much better when done with style, flair and a smile. And of a great corner-forward named Brendan Lowry.

Spectacular

Maybe this win was destined to happen. There's been a lot of talk about the Offaly team of 1982 this year with Dublin going for five in a row and Eugene McGee passing away. Now here was the son and nephew of players from that team upsetting the odds in just as spectacular a fashion.

Brendan Lowry and Shane's mother Bridget were there as the final putt went in. So were Shane's wife Wendy and his daughter Iris and as he hugged both, you thought of how the big man had said on Saturday: "No matter what I shoot on Sunday, my two- year-old will be there waiting for me." There she was and there he was. He had it all now and no player ever deserved it more.

All over Ireland people rejoiced at the performance of their favourite representative on the big stage. One of their own. An ordinary man, with an extraordinary talent.

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