Vincent Hogan: 'There's a likeability to Shane Lowry, the sense of someone recognising the privilege this life brings'
Clara maestro holds his nerve to come through the storm as Champion Golfer of the Year
Striding down 18, a great bombardment of sound delivering him home, Shane Lowry became disoriented for the first time all day.
"I cannot believe this is me," he grinned to caddy, 'Bo' Martin. Ahead lay a panorama that only the greats of his sport encounter. A final green rimmed by towering stands and settled beneath that historic yellow scoreboard. Suddenly, he could even pick out faces in the crowd. Clara faces.
An Irish winner of the Open Championship, being played on Irish soil for the first time since De Valera was in his first year as Taoiseach.
The man who sat in his car, crying after last year's first round at Carnoustie. Who maybe always doubted himself more than those around him ever did. Lowry was champion by a street here, following in the footsteps of men like Bobby Jones, Walter Hagan, Arnold Palmer, Johnny Miller, Tiger Woods and Louis Oosthuizen, winners of the Claret Jug by a gaping six-shot margin.
He is a quiet subversive in a world of methodical minds, plays golf as he sees it. On Saturday night, 'Bo' spoke of a shot on 15 during that record 63 which, ultimately, could only have come leaping from the imagination.
For sure, he'd give Lowry yardage, wind guidance, wise counsel whatever, but no end of byzantine arithmetic would deliver what the Clara man was about to bring.
Having pulled his drive into light trouble down the left, he immediately identified a white mark behind the green as the line required with his gap-wedge second.
"It was about the size of a matchbox from where we were standing," explained Martin in the Bushmills Inn. "But he hit that matchbox!"
There's a lightness to their interaction on the course. They talk easily, comfortably, usually about other things. Martin is assiduous in what he does, but knows too not to bombard Lowry with excessive detail. If others play with the care of surgeons, Lowry almost looks like he's got pressing business elsewhere.
But his honesty is bracing too.
Portrush's wicked topography ensures that a single hiccup of lost concentration sets doubts crowding around you. Yesterday, Lowry found himself endlessly fretting.
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"Bo was unbelievable, he kept on my back all day," he said of his Ardglass caddy now. "I kept on telling him how nervous I was, how scared I was, how much I didn't want to mess up. Bo, though, was great at keeping me in the moment"
Their alliance may be just ten months old, but the chemistry between them is palpable. Even when Lowry became momentarily teary-eyed, spotting his family by the eighteenth, Martin gently upbraided him to "catch a hold" of himself.
Saturday's 63 stands as one of the greatest rounds of golf ever played in a Major, yet it was one in which Lowry needed - above all - to avoid distraction.
On a good day, you can see the Inner Hebrides from the fifth green and, en route to that course record, the Clara man cut an impassive figure, hands on hips, staring out across the North Channel as JB Holmes risked a charge of vagrancy he spent so long figuring out his options after an errant drive into wilderness down the right.
In another time, the delay might have needled Lowry. But he seems magnetised since January's victory in Abu Dhabi.
That day in the Middle East, he also had two-year-old daughter, Iris, to greet him on the eighteenth green. And, pointedly, father and daughter arrived hand-in-hand at the golf course yesterday, Lowry almost deliberately communicating a message that the day ahead would not define him.
No question, playing well softens the edges of most professional sports people.
But there's a likeability to Lowry too, the sense of someone recognising the privilege this life brings and how easily that privilege can change people. If there was little missing from his game but the smell of incense on Saturday, he was still humble and self-effacing in his reflections.
American journalists, inevitably, kept tugging him back to Oakmont three years ago and that harrowing US Open Sunday back nine. A logical line of questioning given that he was again leading by four shots heading into the final round of a Major.
Had he learned from the experience?
"Yeah," he replied evenly, "because who knows when I'll be in this position again? It's taken me three years to get back here. So, yeah, look there's no point in saying to go out and enjoy myself tomorrow because it's going to be a very stressful and very difficult day."
It meant a fitful night's sleep for Lowry, recognising the magnitude of opportunity here.
"I didn't sleep very well," he admitted. "Maybe for about four or five hours and I normally throw a good eight, ten hours at it.
"Look I knew I had to fight to the bitter end and that's what helped me. And that's where I struggled in Oakmont. Like I let myself think about it on 17, but you're still hitting shots. Links golf, bunkers, rough, all sorts can happen out there."
And it truly did.
A dropped shot on one was no great aberration then. Playing second toughest hole on the course, it had already drawn double-bogeys from Holmes, Ricky Fowler and Jon Rahm.
That start would actually plunge Holmes to an horrendous 16-over 87, the worst final round recorded at an Open since 1966.
In any event, the commotion around Lowry on that tee-box, stretching down the fairway into seeming eternity, above his head, everywhere, the "C'mon Offaly roars", the fluttering tricolours, the mood of almost presumptuous gaeity building, he could have been forgiven seeking a handrail for his walk from the tee.
But he'd promised on Saturday evening that he would "take the bad shots on the chin" and he was true to his word.
Rain slamming hard now in drenching gusts across the Dunluce links, Fleetwood's missed birdie putt meant a mere one-shot swing instead of, potentially, three. And three birdies necklaced between the fourth and seventh holes dramatically re-asserted Lowry's hold on this championship, Fleetwood missing the green on the short third to bogey, then managing to match only one of his playing partner's assaults on par.
The worst of the storm was still looming though and, through eight and nine, the links became engulfed in almost Wagnerian darkness, Portrush all but swaying now under a sky wheeling like an oily carousel.
"It was incredible, just put the ball down and hope for the best," said Lowry.
So reaching the turn in par figures actually reflected a marvellous achievement from the Offaly man, winds now gusting at 30mph, embroiling the field in a struggle to keep their feet, never mind summon anything close to elegant golf.
His lead was five at the turn, nobody ahead of the final group able to put any significance of red on the board. Fleetwood and Lowry exchanged bogeys on ten and 11, everyone essentially struggling just to orient themselves to a day asking resolutely aggressive questions.
Fleetwood's third bogey of the day then arrived on ten, but par, birdie were enough for him to take shots back on 11 and 12, narrowing the gap to four now, everybody else effectively thinking about dinner. Tony Finau was outright third, seven-under and needing nothing less than a sniper to get him into contention.
Everywhere, the figures were ugly then. Actually, by now one, single statistic conveyed the viciousness of nature's grip. Aggregate score for the first half of the field was level-par. The second half had already spiralled out to 88-over.
But, for Lowry, the decisive swing came on 14, Fleetwood slipping to double-bogey after finding trouble down the right, Lowry's bogey a virtual lottery win. His gossamer short game then fired the kill-shot on 15, a sublime lob-wedge to eight feet and fist bumps with 'Bo', their fourth birdie of the day secured for a six-shot lead with just three to go.
He still had golf to play, of course, but you could sense in Fleetwood the heavy stride of resignation.
The Englishman's caddie put a hand on Lowry's shoulder walking to the seventeeth tee, a white flag essentially raised. And, having played his approach to 18, the great dam of humanity finally ruptured, Lowry a modern Pied Piper, arms raised towards the sooty skies as his people surged towards him.
Chants of "Shano, Shano, Shano" rolling through the moist air, he and 'Bo' had to call for temporary quiet, Fleetwood lining up a putt from behind the green. At that moment, eight putts available to Shane Lowry for Open glory, he and his caddy embraced gently.
He was the Champion Golfer.