Monday 19 August 2019

The making of Shane Lowry: A chance meeting in a petrol station, a tough lesson and the 'tubby kid with the glasses'

'I saw Shane as a really good golfer,' recalls his coach Neil Manchip. 'At 18, he was someone who walked along the grass and hit the ball a whack. There was no arsing around.'

Shane Lowry enjoyed plenty of success as an amateur before going on to lift the Claret Jug at Royal Portrush 10 years after securing the Irish Open title at Baltray. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
Shane Lowry enjoyed plenty of success as an amateur before going on to lift the Claret Jug at Royal Portrush 10 years after securing the Irish Open title at Baltray. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters

Dermot Gilleece

Kevin Flanagan drove from Portrush back to his home in Rosses Point last Sunday evening having watched extraordinary events in the 148th Open Championship. It had been a wonderfully warm experience for the former Ireland selector and skipper because of his relationship with Shane Lowry.

In fact, the newly-crowned Champion Golfer of the Year is happy to acknowledge: "I'll be forever grateful to him for what became a huge stepping stone in my career. God knows where I'd be if Kevin hadn't been so supportive."

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All of which stemmed from a chance meeting they had in an Offaly filling station back in the spring of 2009. "I was on my way home from a meeting in Tullamore," said the general practitioner, who is this year's jubilee captain of Co Sligo Golf Club. "Shane explained to me that he desperately wanted to play in the Irish Open at Baltray and wondered if I could make it possible."

The problem was a clash with the Brabazon Trophy in England, which would have been the obvious option for Ireland's number one player during a Walker Cup year. Through Flanagan's intervention, however, arrangements were changed to allow Lowry become one of the GUI's nominated players at Co Louth GC.

Three days after making history as the first amateur winner of the blue riband of Irish golf, Lowry brought the trophy to GUI headquarters at Carton House. There, he expressed his thanks to general secretary, Shay Smith, for everything the union had done for him, while revealing he was about to turn professional.

There are tournament professionals who view their amateur days as some sort of wretched disease. For Lowry, however, the experience could hardly have been more fulfilling. Significant trophies were accompanied by representative honours at boy, youth and senior levels. And there was the opportunity of meeting a Scots-born coach and mentor who became a crucially stabilising influence at Royal Portrush last weekend.

Shane Lowry at the homecoming after victory in the European Team Championship at the Royal Park Golf Club in Turin in 2008
Shane Lowry at the homecoming after victory in the European Team Championship at the Royal Park Golf Club in Turin in 2008

Neil Manchip was recruited by the GUI in the autumn of 2004. After a six-week trial, agreement was reached whereby he would work a specific number of days each year, for a set fee per day. "From an early stage, it was clear that he and Shane got on really well together," Smith recalled.

Around the same time, the GUI also considered it appropriate to seek a coach with an international reputation, to embellish Manchip's input. "It fell to me to make contact with Pete Cowen," said Smith. "I remember picking him up at the airport where he stipulated that his fee was £1,000 sterling per day, plus expenses.

"At those sort of numbers, we limited his involvement to one weekend, but everybody, including the players, seemed to be delighted with him." That was when Cowen first set eyes on Lowry and spoke afterwards of the tremendous potential of "the tubby kid with glasses."

"I saw Shane as a really good golfer," Manchip later observed: "At 18, he was someone who walked along the grass and hit the ball a whack; then he walked further along the grass and chipped or putted it, or whatever. There was no arsing around. Shane is a naturally talented guy and there's not a whole lot complicated going on there."

Shane with Italian school children following Ireland’s win in the European Team Championship in 2008
Shane with Italian school children following Ireland’s win in the European Team Championship in 2008

I love that phrase 'arsing around', which is so typical of Manchip, whom I first got to know as a paying pupil. The arrangement was made by my wife who thoughtfully believed he might ease the pain an uncaring game was inflicting on me.

Though it was probably too late for him to significantly change my skill level, I was fascinated by his general approach to teaching. Intelligent, direct and uncomplicated, I can see how he would appeal to Lowry, who came to golf from pitch and putt and who, according to Flanagan, hit every pitch and chip with a trusty 63-degree wedge.

"That was in 2006 when he first played in the West of Ireland," he went on. "On hearing he was good, I went out to watch him play a few holes. I noted his lovely, natural style, while around the greens he was the ultimate soft-hands player. And unlike most of the boys who had their dad or a relative carrying the bag, he came with a proper caddie, which was unusual."

It was also an occasion, however, when the lad from Clara was made to endure one of the harsher sanctions of a game of numbers.

"I remember being pleased with myself after an opening 73, even though it was six strokes behind a remarkable 67 by England's David Horsey," recalled Lowry, who went on to become an honorary life member of Co Sligo GC.

"Then I was set to lead the qualifiers when it was discovered I had signed for wrong figures in a second-round 66. Though it wasn't to be an ideal memory of my first West, disqualification proved to be a very valuable lesson."

Only a month later, his young heart was to suffer further hardship. "On a really rough day for the final rounds of the 2006 Irish Amateur Open at Portmarnock, Shane carded an outstanding, morning 74, to put himself in contention for the title," said Smith.

"Unfortunately, he neglected to sign his card and I could sense how disappointing it was going to be for him after what had happened at Rosses Point. It fell to me to give him the bad news, which remains one of the toughest things I've had to do in golf. But his reaction was remarkable. 'My own fault,' he admitted. And with that, he proceeded to try and calm his father, Brendan, who seemed considerably more upset than Shane."

When Lowry returned to Rosses Point for the 2008 West, he did so as one of the more fancied contenders. "I remember there used to be a book and the guy who was caddying for me backed me to win," he recalled. "I think I was 8/1 that week. By then, Rory [McIlroy] had turned pro and was actually playing his first full year on the European Tour and I was conscious of having climbed the pecking order. In fact I can remember thinking that I was going there to win."

At this point, the question arises as to whether the golf-devotee who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC remembers last Sunday's winner from an event of 12 years ago. It was the GUI's representative match against the Metropolitan Golf Association (MGA), played at Trump National on Long Island.

When the singles got under way, a striking figure who had just disembarked from a helicopter, proceeded to walk the course with Lowry's match. On reaching a particularly demanding par three, where the Irish youth hit a glorious three iron, the future president of the United States exclaimed: "That's one of the sweetest shots I've seen. That guy's a helluva player." A few holes later, the chopper returned and Donald Trump was gone.

In the course of internationals at boys, youths and senior levels, Lowry gained a reputation as a popular player who liked to address colleagues by their surname as in Kearney, Shaw and Caldwell. According to Flanagan, he was also "fantastic in the team room, a crucial leader among the players."

You could imagine how savage winds sweeping Rosses Point or possibly Lahinch, would have fortified his mind for last Sunday's test around daunting Dunluce. Indeed there was ample evidence of the hostile environment July could also conjure along the Antrim coast in the North of Ireland Championship.

It wasn't weather for America's sunshine boys, nor for the fragile, saw-putting grip of Tommy Fleetwood on greens down to a speed of only nine feet 11 inches on the Stimpmeter. Only a sure touch accompanied by toughness of mind and body would do.

Never was this self-assurance more in evidence than on the 15th green, where the emphatic nature of Lowry's fist-pump proclaimed to the world that his work was virtually done, as an eight-foot birdie putt found the target. Then, as he referred to his course notes on the final tee, the engraver was applying the finishing touches to the plinth of the Claret Jug.

As a deeply-committed golf man, Flanagan had originally planned only a Thursday visit to Portrush, where his son, Seán, captured the 'North' three years ago. Third-round scoring, however, left him with no option but to head back there on Sunday morning.

When it was all over, he met Lowry's parents and his brother Alan, a regular visitor to Rosses Point. "I didn't meet Shane," he said. "That's for another day."

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