Shane Lowry finds his Major muse on magical opening day
It began with tingling nerves and a rumble of excitement, but in between those tidal waves of emotion rode Shane Lowry with a Major performance that bodes well for something "special".
The early high notes of The Open's long-awaited return to Royal Portrush were played by Darren Clarke and Mallow amateur James Sugrue, who led early after a raucous send-off and posted level-par 71s that left both smiling.
There were few smiles from an ill-prepared Tiger Woods, who shot 78, or former champion David Duval, who carded a humiliating 91.
Rory McIlroy's ill-starred 79 will leave a deep scar while Graeme McDowell was wounded, perhaps mortally, as he turned a potential 68 into a 73.
But as Pádraig Harrington shot a 75 that summed up his injury-delayed season, Lowry announced his Major championship candidacy by carding a four-under 67. That left him a shot behind long-hitting JB Holmes but one clear of a chasing posse featuring a host of dangerous desperadoes, including the relentless Brooks Koepka and the swashbuckling Jon Rahm.
The crowd was begging for an Irish story and where McIlroy failed, Lowry delivered in spades.
The Clara native (32) confessed he was "uneasy" about the test this week - feeling in his bones that a big performance was within his compass but anxious that he might fail to find the freedom to deliver it.
In the end, all it took was a frank chat with his coach Neil Manchip over coffee in the Bushmills Inn on Wednesday to put him at ease.
"We found a little quiet room and had a great chat for about 40 minutes," Lowry said. "I left that room full of confidence and ready to go. We just put everything out in the open, everything out on the table - what could happen, what might happen…"
Undone by a first-round 78 in the Masters and hampered by a pair of opening 75s in the US PGA and the US Open, his 67 came like manna from heaven - a bogey on the tough 11th being the only bum note in a recital that brought birdies at the third, fifth, ninth, 10th and 12th.
It might have been 66 or 65 but he wasn't complaining having enjoyed good breaks at the 16th and 17th.
"It's my best [first] round by about eight shots," Lowry beamed, his score speaking volumes about the fine line between success and failure.
"To be honest, I really was feeling a bit uneasy about this week yesterday, I'm not going to lie. It was just a great chat and we said obviously it would be great to do well this week and great to contend, but it's not the end of the world if it doesn't happen."
Asked to explain why he felt so uneasy, Lowry said: "It's the British Open, it's in Ireland. I'm playing well, I feel like I should come up and do well. Why shouldn't I feel uneasy?
"It's got the potential to be an unbelievable Open. Probably one of the best Opens I think. And I'm just hoping it's going to be special for me."
McDowell looked poised to match Lowry's 67 when he played his first 14 holes immaculately to get to three under.
But he then followed with three-putt bogeys at the 15th and 17th, with a lost ball off the tee at the last that led to a triple-bogey seven and a 73.
"Getting off that first tee this morning, I literally had a tear in my eye," said McDowell, whose "lost ball" was found a frustrating 12 seconds outside the new three-minute limit, leading him to kick his golf bag in anger.
He added: "To conduct myself as well as I did all day and play as well as I did all day, and then to finish like that, it hurts. It hurts a lot.
"I'm not going to let this spoil my week, because it could easily spoil my week. I feel like all the air has been let out of the sails, plus some."
His bittersweet feelings contrasted with the joy felt by 50-year-old veteran Clarke and 22-year old Amateur champion Sugrue as they got the show on the road with Charley Hoffman in front of a full house at 6:35am.
"I didn't think I'd feel the way I did," Clarke said. "When I was about to hit my tee shot, I thought 'Wow, it's The Open Championship, we're back in Portrush.' It was amazing."
Clarke flushed a driver straight down the middle at the first and followed a birdie there with two more at the third and fifth to take the lead before struggling down the stretch.
Sugrue did not disappoint, his nerves evaporating after an impressive par-birdie start and a brief share of the lead through seven holes.
"I was shaking," Sugrue said of his first-tee nerves and the massive crowd that packed the grandstand and lined the entire hole. "It was definitely the most nervous I've ever been on the golf course this morning.
"From end to end it was just jammed. It was classic. I've played in front of a few people before, but nothing like on this scale. It was fairytale stuff."
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