Monday 19 August 2019

Lowry's lyric touch can help to slay ghosts of Oakmont

Shane’s World: Shane Lowry acknowledges the crowd at Portrush after his excellent second round gave him a share of the lead at The Open. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Shane’s World: Shane Lowry acknowledges the crowd at Portrush after his excellent second round gave him a share of the lead at The Open. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He knew the ghost of Oakmont would insinuate its way into the room - it always does. Shane Lowry met it with an easy smile. The story of the 2016 US Open sticks to him like a catheter it seems, an indelible moment in his young life that, for a time, seemed to whitewash everything he had achieved in the game.

So the half-way leader of the 148th Open Championship sighed quietly last night, accepting the appetite to revisit that harrowing day he let slip a four-shot Sunday lead in a suburb of Pittsburgh and flew home with a broken heart.

Someone mentions how Pádraig Harrington has just suggested outside that "scar tissue can actually be a good thing". It's an obvious tee-up for him to say something stirring and it all feels just a little too transparent for his taste.

"Oakmont was so long ago and I was a lot younger," he says flatly. "I feel like if I get the opportunity this week, I'll be better. I don't think.... what am I trying to say? I'm trying to say it definitely won't affect me, what happened in Oakmont. Obviously, I've got over that. It took me a while to get over it, but I got over it."

Successive rounds of 67 gave him a share of the Portrush lead with JB Holmes, and there's a certain symmetry to Lowry's story here this week. A year ago in Carnoustie, he parted ways with caddie of nine years, Dermot Byrne. Coach Neil Manchip carried the bag for Lowry's second round and, having missed the cut, Lowry then did what he has since described as "the hardest thing I ever had to do".

Liberation

His brother, Alan, substituted for the next three weeks before Lowry was eventually united with Brian 'Bo' Martin, the calm, bearded figure nursing him through every pressure point of the feared Dunluce Links yesterday.

The Clara man took a long time to come back from the "dark place" that professional golf had pitched him into, but victory in the Abu Dhabi Championship last January (his first European Tour win since 2015) brought a prize of €1,024,195 and, it seemed, some degree of liberation from the demons of old.

And now, having missed the cut in his last four Open Championships, Lowry is right at the business-end of, arguably, the biggest tournament in golf.

Six birdies in his opening 10 holes had the North Antrim coastline thrumming yesterday and Lowry loved every minute of it.

"I've won big tournaments before, I'm in a familiar place. I know the surroundings," he said. "I need to go out and shoot the best score I can tomorrow. I just feel like I'm in a great place. I feel like if I go out there and shoot 65 or 75, look, I'll be disappointed if I shoot 75. But I don't think it will hurt me like it has before."

In this mood, Lowry's lyric touch around the greens elevates his game to art.

Time and again, his short wedge play might have been guided by sensitive radar yesterday. His putting was assured - and always aggressive. Opening with three birdies, he had the jaunty air of somebody ripping through a Sunday fourball.

On Thursday's first tee, he'd told caddie 'Bo' Martin he'd "never been this nervous".

But this was Lowry in glorious, easy flow. He chatted sporadically to playing partners Brandon Grace and Phil Mickelson, yet seemed largely comfortable in his own company. Mickelson, in any event, was a disinterested, islanded soul.

The American took double on the second, twice watching high-risk wedge shots from a valley just short of the green roll back to his feet, triggering a cry of "stop trying to show off" from one American voice.

And one tableau on the fifth said much about a quiet disconnect between Mickelson and the others.

With Grace's ball lost deep in heather right of the fairway, Lowry duly joined the hurried search, Mickelson strolling indifferently towards his own ball just short of the green. Grumbles soon swelled in the gallery, communicating displeasure at the American's selfishness.

Loud enough too to make him reconsider, Mickelson eventually breaking into a gentle trot, too late - as it happened - for a ball already found.

Seven iron, two iron and seven iron approaches and putts of six, three and five feet secured those opening birdies for Lowry, his iron play scalpel-sharp, his swing almost musical in grace.

A 20-foot birdie putt just died on the lip at the fourth and he almost drove that fifth green before pitching to a foot for his fourth birdie of the day.

That gave him joint leadership with JB Holmes before an extraordinarily pure seven iron to two feet on the eighth got him to nine-under and one clear of the American. And he then rolled in a 20-footer on the 10th, the roars from a now vast gallery almost catching him off guard.

Because, with the tint of heavy rain now darkening the Causeway coastline, the numbers drawn to Lowry's charge kept growing steadily now.

"It was just incredible," he reflected later. "And you can't but smile, you can't but laugh. There's no point trying to shy away from it. It's an incredible feeling getting applauded on to every green and every tee box," he added.

But with that yearning comes heightened pressure and spurned birdie opportunities on the 12th and 13th were followed by his first dropped shot of the day, three-putting from 60-feet on the notoriously challenging 14th hole.

A brilliant bunker save on the 15th, a smart up-and-down after being short and right on the vast 'Calamity Corner' par-three 16th prefaced a highly-eventful par on the 17th where, distracted by TV commentary from the tented village maybe 80 yards behind the tee-box, he leaked his drive into the customers on the right.

Lucky

"I could hear Jay Townsend commenting on my shot," smiled Lowry. "Just on my backswing, he said: 'He's got 295 to the top of the hill!' Yeah, that put me off. But I got lucky."

That luck came in the form of a free drop because of crowd barriers on a decent lie and, though he flew the green from 133 yards, Lowry pitched sublimely to four feet and pulled off another impressive save.

That left the Clara man needing a par on the 18th to be outright leader heading in to the weekend, but a weak second shot left him short of the green. And, despite the thunderous ovation as he arrived on the green, he was unable to get up and down from eight feet.

Still, revisiting Carnoustie 12 months back, Lowry finds himself now in a profoundly different place.

"I was very down about how things were," he recalled of last year's Open. "I was very down about my game and, yeah, I wasn't in a great place mentally, I suppose.

"But I'm in a totally different place now. Look, it's chalk and cheese really. It's all different now to how I felt last year. What's the difference? I honestly have no idea. I think, as a golfer, you have such a long career, well, hopefully you have a long career.

"I've been 10 years (a professional) now and it's just a roller-coaster.

"And I think the reason I'm so good mentally now is I know... I think... I feel like I know how to take the downs. I feel like the roller-coaster ride is going to be there. And hopefully I have it for another 15 to 20 years."

With or without that stubborn ghost in the grass.

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