Shane Lowry breaks course record in Portrush to take four-shot lead into the final day of the Open
Shane Lowry said he was "shaking" on Thursday's first tee, but there was little evidence of nerves on Saturday, the Offaly man producing the greatest round of his golfing life to take control of the 148th Open Championship.
Cries of "Ole Ole Ole" greeted Lowry as he walked to the eighteenth green of the famed Dunluce links, needing one more birdie for only the second 62 in Open history. As it happened, his 20-foot putt slid just wide of the hole meaning his bogey-free, eight under round of 63 ensures he will carry a four-shot lead over England's Tommy Fleetwood into Sunday's final round.
Lowry's score, a course record, means JB Holmes is two shots further back, with Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose starting seven shots behind the rampant Clara man.
Lowry sits at sixteen under for the tournament after rounds of 67, 67 and 63, giving him a massive opportunity now to exorcise the ghost of that final round US Open failure at Oakmont. With bad weather forecast, Lowry will be on the first tee at 13.47pm tomorrow with Fleetwood, the tee-times brought forward because of the threat of 40 mph gusts and heavy rain.
He bids to become only the fifth Irishman to win The Open after Fred Daly, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy.
Lowry quickly went to work on a course suddenly revealing a benign character as the stiff north-westerly wind of morning gave way to a gentle, rippling breeze.
Birdie opportunities were instantly on show with Lee Westwood making an early move into outright leadership, picking up shots on two, three and four. Lowry's playing partner, JB Holmes, was also quick off the mark with birdies on two and three.
But any worries that the Clara man might be left in the blocks after opening pars were quickly discarded when he stitched a sublime tee-shot to three feet on the short third.
Lowry picked up another shot on five, almost driving the green, then pitching to maybe three feet and sinking the putt after an interminable delay for Holmes, who needed a free drop after leaking his drive right into deep rough before a scoreboard.
An opportunity was squandered on the par five seventh when with 280 yards to the pin, Lowry's sublime three wood second left him with what looked an ideal position just front of the green for his trademark lob-wedge. But he caught the ball flat and needed two putts to get down.
By now, there was a four-way tie at the top on ten under between Tommy Fleetwood, Westwood, Lowry and Holmes.
But the Irishman was out in front by the turn, a wonderful eight-iron to nine feet from 177 yards followed by a confident putt to reach the turn in an impressive 33 shots.
The charge was really on for Lowry now and, despite an errant drive left on ten, he used the contours of the green brilliantly to put his second to four feet, sinking the putt for his fourth birdie of the day and, soon, tied for the lead with Fleetwood who - at the same time - was birdieing twelve.
But Lowry duly matched the feat, a 30 foot eagle putt just slipping by the hole, his fifth birdie of the day giving him the outright lead again at thirteen under, Justin Rose the big mover now, climbing to ten under after a sequence of eagle, birdie, par, birdie.
A putt for birdie on thirteen just slipped past the hole for Lowry and he made a splendid par save on fourteen after pulling his drive into rough on the left. Holmes bogeyed both those holes and with Rose slipping up at 'Calamity Corner' and Westwood bogeying fifteen, a gap was appearing between Lowry, Fleetwood and the rest of the field.
Lowry then moved two clear, sinking a left-to-right twelve footer for his sixth birdie of the day before hitting a wonderful approach on the monster 240-yard par three sixteenth to maybe seven feet, nailing the putt for yet another break against par.
This meant that, standing on the seventeenth tee, Lowry now led by three on fifteen under from Fleetwood on twelve with Brooks Koepka, Rose and Holmes all now on nine.
There was no backing off from the leader now though and a sublime pitch to three feet set up birdie number eight on seventeen
Fleetwood finished the day with a 66; Koepka, the dual US Open champion, had birdied his last two holes to finish with a 67, Rose shooting 67.
Earlier, Graeme McDowell had become the first man on the course to break 70 today, birdieing his last two holes to get to two under for the tournament but, in his own estimation, too far back to contend for the Claret Jug.
And McDowell insisted that the pessimism now building around Rory McIlroy's chances of ever winning a fifth Major was ill-deserved, predicting that this week's pre-tournament favourite - who missed the half-way 'cut' - will eventually bring his haul of marquee trophies to "double-digits'.
McIlroy's ruinous Thursday 79 was followed by a birdie-laden second round 65, leaving him just one shot adrift of making the weekend.
"I think Rory probably won himself a lot of fans last night" suggested McDowell. "To show that raw emotion, to show how much it means to him, how much it means to all of us being out here and bringing this great tournament to Portrush, for him obviously to not play how he wants to play...the way he battled coming down the stretch says a lot about him as a person.
"It's great in sport when we see some emotion sometimes, 'cos sometimes these guys look like robots out here. We're not robots. We hurt. And we hurt a lot sometimes. It's a tough sport.
"Golf will test you to the absolute limit like no other sport. I truly believe Rory's in as good a place physically and mentally as I've ever seen him. But this was always going to be difficult week for him, because he was the Irish shining light coming in here.
"It's alright for me and Darren and Padraig and guys like that, Rory was the guy with the spotlight on him. He was handling all the pressure. He's a megastar and he was coming in here with the pressure of a nation on his shoulders. He was always going to fell it a lot more than we did.
"Obviously the start on Thursday was just a killer blow. He still took it down to the wire yesterday, it was a special effort from him."
Asked about the five-year gap to McIlroy's fourth Major, McDowell was adamant there'd be more.
"He won't finish on four" he said confidently. "I've no doubt in my mind. Five years is a huge gap for a man of his capabilities, no doubt about it. But you know people grow up at different rates. There's so much happens in a man's life. He met his wife, got married. You know, life gets in the way sometimes.
"I feel like he's gone through that transition in his life and he's spent this year trying to really get himself settled and become more philsophical - meditation and all the things he's working - I feel that mentally he's really settling back down into the rhythm again.
"I'm not making excuses for the guy. Five years is a big gap for him, but he's still a young man, only 30, in the shape of his life. I think mentally he's in a great place. But, in the meantime, there's some great players out here. You know it's hard to win.
"But I have huge belief in him that he'll win soon and that he'll win several. Double-digits is well within his capabilities. But it's a tough landscape out here now. He'll get unfairly criticised this week for not playing well.
"But he had a lot of pressure on his shoulders this week. It''s very difficult to come home and do what he tried to do with all that pressure and all that spotlight."