Surprise Open winner Shane Lowry is not giving the Claret Jug back without a fight
Growing up in wee-town Ireland, far off the American golfer’s tourist trail, Shane Lowry had two athletic models. One was his father, a tiler by profession and a Gaelic football legend by reputation. The other was Tiger Woods. Shane was born in April 1987, and for his 10th birthday (just about) Tiger gave him his 12-shot win at the Masters. The 1997 Masters, right there on the family telly. What a gift.
As for his father, Shane inherited Brendan Lowry’s hand-eye and passion for sport, but not his speed or body type. Shane found his own way to golf. He started on a local pitch-and-putt and before long could get around in level 3s, rain-drops on his glasses. Then, as luck would have it, in 1997 (there’s that year again!) a proper inland course opened near his hometown. Near is a relative term. The Esker Hills Golf Club was 45 minutes from Shane’s house — on his bike.
Each year, in the week before the Open Championship, enticing tidbits would find their way into his father’s newspaper. Tiger would be somewhere on the isle, with his buddy Mark O’Meara and two Irish sport-loving businessmen, J.P. McManus and Dermot Desmond, “preparing” for the Open by playing semi-covert rounds for modest stakes at various seaside courses in the north and south. Even the schoolboys could guess at their other activities, the fishing and the sipping and the grilling. Shane began dreaming of someday playing with Tiger.
Then last year, at the one-off November Masters, he finally did. Three times, in fact, in four days. Tiger was the defending champion, and Lowry the reigning British Open winner. “It was amazing,” Lowry said. “He makes that 10 on the 12th on Sunday, then played his nuts off, five under over the last six. When we were done, I said to my caddie, ‘That’s the best lesson we will ever have.’” Do. Not. Quit.
Lowry makes a great living, but the starting point, he’ll tell you, “is to love the game. You can’t start in this game saying, ‘I’m gonna make money playing it.'”
Now, after a one-year absence, comes another Open Championship, No. 149 if you’re keeping track at home, this one at Royal St. George’s. The last time an Open was played there, in 2011, it was won by Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland. The last time a defending champion won an Open was in 2008, when Padraig Harrington, native Dubliner, won at Royal Birkdale. And here comes Shane Lowry, proud son of County Offaly — winner of the 2019 Open, at Royal Portrush, in Northern Ireland — trying to do the same.
For the Open at Portrush, Lowry rented one house for his wife and daughter and his own self and another for various friends and family members. Through the week, there was fishing and sipping and grilling — and golfing. Lowry shots rounds of 67, 67, 63 and a Sunday 72 in the rain and wind to win by six. The party continued. The only thing that changed was its size.
Shane Lowry is hard on himself, Thursday through Sunday. His girth, his beard, his practice-day demeanor suggest otherwise, but the truth is Lowry is hard on himself when he’s under the gun, more so since winning the Open. “He just needs to chill out,” Padraig Harrington said of his countryman after the PGA Championship at Kiawah. Lowry will play for Harrington in September at the Ryder Cup — if he makes the team.
“He puts himself under too much pressure at times, and pushes too hard and can get down on himself,” Harrington said. “But we’d all be much better players if we were able to talk about our golf rather than play it.”
Lowry is a plus-4 talker, ending statements with question marks, as his people do. “Growing up, you play and watch everything, right?” he said recently, having a chat in a sun-drenched stateside backyard, shortly before this year’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. His brogue — it screams golf. “Gaelic football, hurling, soccer. Tennis — Wimbledon! When the World Snooker Championship was on, we’d all watch that. Golf, of course.” Shane’s swing was his own, untutored, and no big-name American university golf programs showed interest in him. “I was barely top 15 in Ireland,” he’ll tell you.
Then, in his late teens and early 20s, he got better, for reasons he cannot figure out, not that he needs to or wants to. In 2009, at age 22, he won the Irish Open, a major event on the European Tour schedule — as an amateur. He won on the seaside course in Baltray. For what he did there, and a decade later at Portrush, he’ll be an Irish sporting legend forever.
After winning that Irish Open, he turned pro and told a friend, “Looks like I won’t be needing that sponsor’s exemption to the Kazakhstan Open!” He was being funny. Also accurate. His skill alone would open doors. He won in Portugal in 2012, at Firestone in 2015, in Dubai in 2019. He played and plays the world.
He makes a great living, but the starting point, he’ll tell you, “is to love the game. You can’t start in this game saying, ‘I’m gonna make money playing it.’” Golf is in him as Gaelic football, a purely amateur sport, is in his father.
You likely remember the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont: torrential rainstorms, delayed tee times, greens faster than a VW hood. Dustin Johnson winning on Sunday after telling a USGA official that a ball under his chin on the 5th green moved, fractionally, but not because of anything he did. The USGA, by the end of this torturous day, decided otherwise and added a shot to Johnson’s score, so he won by three and not four. You remember, right?
But do you remember that, through 54 holes, Shane Lowry had a four-shot lead? Shane Lowry does. Do you remember that Lowry called a one-shot penalty on himself in circumstances similar to Johnson’s?
Lowry, on the 16th green in the second round, was over a 30-foot birdie putt. The ball moved, fractionally. Nobody saw it but Lowry. Without any adult supervision, he did exactly what the rule book required then. He put his ball back in its original position and added a shot.
“Are you sure?” Lowry asked when that moment was revisited in a recent interview. “I honestly don’t remember this at all.”
Presented with proof, he said, “That’s bananas!”
Well, why would you remember simply doing the right thing? He doesn’t recall it just as he wouldn’t recall leaving a fiver for the barmaid. Why would you remember doing what comes naturally, what’s in you?
And now golf’s oldest and grandest championship is back, at long last. It’s on your telly. You’re rooting for this guy with the beard and the brogue and the homemade swing, right? How can you not?