PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – A year ago, sitting in a car park at Carnoustie, having just signed another discouraging scorecard, Shane Lowry could no longer hold in his emotions. His Irish eyes started to weep. Tears of disappointment.
The first round of the 2018 Open Championship had just concluded. Another missed cut loomed. He hadn’t produced a top-10 finish all year. He had won just once in the last six years and was in danger of losing his PGA TOUR card. He was not having fun. Doubts were creeping in. The stress, the pressure – those were once challenges to handle. Now they were simply burdens.
“Golf wasn’t my friend,” Lowry recalled. “… I just didn’t even like doing it.”
Flip the calendar ahead 12 months. It is now Sunday. Lowry once again is crying. This time, he’s not alone in a parked car. This time?
Tears of joy.
He had just turned the corner at the dogleg-right 18th at Royal Portrush, and there was no doubt now he would win The Open. The marshals in blue vests were starting to form a line to hold off the crowd that would soon spill onto the fairway. The gallery was singing “Ole, Ole” and waving Irish flags. Lowry’s name was already being inscribed on the Claret Jug. He was about to become the first Irish golfer to win The Open on his home island – and he was about to do it by six shots.
That’s when he saw his family in the distance, on the back of the green. His wife Wendy, their daughter Iris, his parents, his team, his friends. “I welled up a little bit,” Lowry said. His caddie Bo Martin reminded him he still had one more approach shot to hit. Catch a hold of yourself, he told Lowry.
No worries. Once his last iron had been struck, Lowry and Martin embraced. Lowry thrust both arms up in the air. He wanted to soak it all in, but it was difficult. “Very surreal experience going down there,” he said. And yet, the last 12 months had also been surreal, from where he had been at Carnoustie to now.
“Just shows you how fickle golf is,” the 32-year-old Lowry said after his final-round 72 left him at 15 under. “Golf is a weird sport, and you never know what’s around the corner.”
Lowry was a full-time member of the PGA TOUR in 2018, thanks to his 2015 win at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. But that three-year exemption was up after last season, and Lowry did not play well enough to qualify for the 125-man FedExCup Playoffs. He finished 140th on the points list.
He didn’t technically lose his TOUR card, as he kept limited status entering this season. But for some golfers on TOUR, not making the FedExCup Playoffs is sort of like losing your card, certainly from a fully-exempt standpoint. And so Lowry went home after his missed cut at the Wyndham Championship and looked in the mirror. He focused on upcoming events on the European Tour.
His friend and Portrush native Graeme McDowell called it a “wake-up call” for Lowry.
“When you’re not playing well, you can get the stuffing knocked out of you very fast, especially on the PGA TOUR,” McDowell said. “It’s very cut-throat. You play a bad nine holes, you go home Friday night.
“Europe is not quite as deep. The players are strong but not quite as deep. I think he came back from the States at the end of last year … and remembered who he was again. He came out and won Abu Dhabi (in January). He’s been Shane Lowry again.
“I think losing his card in the States last year was the best thing that ever happened to him. It just gave him that little bit of kick you need to refocus and remotivate and to get himself back to where he wants to be.”
Lowry had help.
On Wednesday, he went to the local Bushmills Inn with his coach Neil Manchip. They shared coffee and a chat. Lowry was nervous, anxious, but Manchip raised his spirits and his confidence. The next day, Lowry opened with a 4-under 67 that set the wheels in motion.
Meanwhile, it was last September when Martin started carrying his bag; Lowry had split with his caddie of nine years, Dermot Byrne, after that disappointment in Carnoustie, using his brother Alan in the interim. Lowry and Martin have known each other for awhile, but since forming a working relationship, their friendship has grown.
“He’s brought a new lease on life to me,” Lowry said.
During Sunday’s final round, Lowry kept telling Martin how nervous he was, that he was scared, that he didn’t want to mess up this historic opportunity in front of the home fans. He wanted to give them what they wanted, but he couldn’t help feeling a bit pessimistic.
After all, self-doubt is not easy to defeat. Even with a four-shot lead going into the final round, Lowry woke up Sunday after a restless night’s sleep thinking negative thoughts. “I didn’t even know going out this morning if I was good enough to win a major,” he said. A bogey on the opening hole didn’t help, although he dodged a two-shot-swing bullet when Fleetwood missed his birdie attempt.
But Martin stayed in his ear, keeping his spirits up, reminding him to focus and be positive. There was a key approach at the par-4 fourth. As they stood in the fairway, Lowry and Martin kept looking left over their shoulders, wondering about the wind. A fan was holding up an umbrella that had an Irish flag attached to it, and that offered a little bit of help. Lowry proceeded to nail his approach to set up his first birdie.
Then, at the par-5 seventh, a nice chip from just off the green set up his second birdie. Meanwhile, playing partner Tommy Fleetwood, who had found the bunker with his third shot and had to settle for par. Lowry was now six shots ahead. There was no catching him.
“He literally controlled the tournament from the start of today until the end,” Fleetwood said. “That’s a very, very impressive thing to do.”
Lowry’s short-game is among the best in golf, and it served him well on Sunday – especially when the nasty weather (“Portrush Armageddon,” McDowell called it) kicked in. G-Mac said Phil Mickelson is the only golfer whose short game compares to Lowry’s.
“I play of lot of practice rounds with him and I always laugh and giggle to myself because he throws balls down in the fringe and he just stands there with his lobber all day,” McDowell said of Lowry. “I’m like, ‘What’s this guy doing?’
“Well, I found out this weekend what he’s doing. He’s preparing himself for when he needs to hit that shot under pressure in The Open Championship with a chance to win.”
The chance turned into reality on Sunday. A week that started with high expectations of another Irish golfer – Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy — winning the Claret Jug ended up in Lowry’s hands, the most under-the-radar of the five Irish pros in the field.
Among those waiting to meet him after the final putt dropped was fellow Irishman Padraig Harrington, who won two Opens before Lowry had ever met him but had missed the cut this week. Now they’re good friends, and Lowry likes to visit Harrington at his house in Dublin. He always gets a kick when he walks into the kitchen and sees one of Harrington’s Claret Jugs on the table.
Now he had a message for his friend as they shared a hug Sunday.
“I’m going to have one on my kitchen table as well.”