Lowry's day of destiny
History beckons as Shane's sparkling round sends him four shots clear at Portrush
Destiny beckons Shane Lowry at a time and a place of splendid achievement. Ten years on from his Irish Open triumph and in a return to the scene of an earlier North of Ireland victory in 2008, he swept into a four-stroke lead over Tommy Fleetwood in the 148th Open Championship yesterday.
With a superbly crafted third round of 63, the 32-year-old native of Clara sent hearts racing on a thrilling homeward journey. Onslaughts from an elite leaderboard were resisted with some remarkable recovery play and putting of breathtaking quality.
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The day began with Royal Portrush as a sight to behold, with flags along the grandstand behind the 18th green, fluttering in a fresh, north-westerly breeze. Later, the wind abated, rendering a reshaped stretch decidedly vulnerable, but it retained the beauty which has been gaining universal accolades since the first ball was struck on Thursday morning.
Conscious of a game in excellent order and with a mental attitude to match, Lowry had the confidence to deliver arguably his finest round on Irish terrain. Especially notable were short-game skills which have characterised his play going back to the rich promise of his teenage years.
A decisive move clear of his closest challengers came in a run of three birdies from the 15th. The middle of them, a glorious two at Calamity, where a nine-foot putt was stroked unerringly into the centre of the cup, carried the stamp of a master. Then came a stunning pitch to three feet at the 17th, and a two-putt par at the last completed the magic.
Given the circumstances, it was a deeply moving climax to a great day's sport, where hearts were opened to a brilliant representative of Irish golf. And as tension slowly eased, he was more than happy to reciprocate with the warmest of smiles.
"Honestly, this has been the most incredible day I've ever had on a golf course," said Lowry, who had the same 54-hole lead when winning in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. "In the circumstances, I thought I dealt with it very well. People literally a yard away while I walked from green to tee, roaring in your face as loud as they can. And tomorrow is going to be a stressful, difficult day, but I'm mentally prepared for it."
Graeme McDowell became the focus of local attention as an early starter among the qualifiers on 143 - one over par. It was a situation both encouraging and daunting as spectators stood 10-deep down the first and second fairways.
In the event, he carded an admirable 68 which included birdies on the 17th and 18th, the second of these from a beautifully-struck six iron of 179 yards to within two feet of the target.
It was such a simple three that he couldn't help thinking of the boost it would have been to fellow Northerners, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy on Friday. A closing three would have got both of them among the qualifiers.
"I felt I handled the course reasonably," said McDowell. "I'm not sure if I'll be here the next time, but this has been a special week to look back on."
When he finished at 1.50pm, his two-under-par total left him tied 30th. An indication of abating winds and generally easing conditions, however, was that he had slipped to tied 33rd by the time Lowry went into action, two hours later.
In a serious test of his composure, the Offalyman looked rock-solid on the outward journey, making his only error of consequence at the long seventh, where he chipped four feet short and missed the birdie putt. But an eight-footer for birdie on the ninth sent him to the top of the leaderboard on 11-under par at the turn, a stroke clear of playing partner JB Holmes, tied second with Fleetwood.
Then Lowry made back-to-back birdies when his approach to the 10th kicked very favourably off the left contours, heightening the suspicion that this might be his weekend. Interestingly, the weather is set to be wet and generally hostile, just as it was for his Irish Open win at Baltray in 2009.
Though he and McDowell were the only Irish players to make the cut from an original entry of six, home interest extended to the caddying fraternity and beyond. As it happened, Claire Dowling, a five-time winner of the Irish Ladies Close title, was officiating as a referee with the pairing of Lucas Bjerragaard and Tony Finau in her capacity as an official of the R and A.
Her first stint as an Open on-course referee was back in 2011 at Royal St George's, where Clarke captured this title. On that occasion, she became only the second woman to fill the role, emulating the achievement of England's Elizabeth Earnshaw. As a sign of changed times, as many as eight women referees were in action yesterday, when they were joined by Mark Wehrly of the GUI.
Today's final round has been brought forward in anticipation of inclement weather, which means that Lowry and Fleetwood will set out in the last pairing at 1.47pm.
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Sunday Indo Sport