The nation holds its breath

John Craven

Shane Lowry at Royal Portrush (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

At 13.47 this afternoon, Shane Lowry will embark on a Major mission as he looks to become the fifth Irishman, and the first ever on home soil, to lift the Claret Jug.

Only Fred Daly, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy have had the privilege of adding their distinguished names to a most coveted title, but today Lowry has the chance to arguably usurp them all as he attempts to do what many thought was impossible and win an Open Championship on the island of Ireland.

For a long time, just the idea of a Major championship being contested on this island again since its sole appearance in 1951 was nothing but a far-fetched dream. Red tape to navigate, hoops to jump through, it was a journey that took years of careful negotiations to realise. Names like Clarke, McDowell and McIlroy added their considerable weight to the movement and when Royal Portrush earned its place on the Open rota, they rightfully attracted top billing.

32-year old Shane Lowry, a product of Esker Hills Golf Club and Clara, arrived to the Dunluce Links happily under the radar as a result. Ranked 33 in the world and with a new found perspective for life that has worked wonders for his golf game, Lowry landed with his own expectations bubbling beneath the surface. Having won the North of Ireland around the course in 2008, and with his mental fortitude better than ever, everything this week has pointed to a big Lowry challenge. But could he deliver?

A day one 67 suggested yes. A second successive 67 on Friday added considerable confidence to his claims, but it was Lowry’s moving day surge of 63 yesterday that makes you a believer.

It’s hard to recall a more raucous, cauldron atmosphere than the one that greeted Lowry at every turn on Saturday, but rather than recede to the roars, the Offaly man used them to fuel his fire. Where a mere mortal would tighten up, there was a lucidity in Lowry’s swing that few watching could believe. His play was more akin to an exhibition match than a Major championship, and it’s whether he can recreate that state of golfing Utopia today that will ultimately decide the fate of the championship.

Lowry doesn’t have to chase it today. With the weather predicted to come in mid-afternoon, a round of level par should see him comfortably across the line. But we’ve been here before.

At Oakmont in 2016, Lowry entered the final round of a Major with a four-shot lead only to see it dwindle in a disastrous last day that took some getting over. Whether the scar tissue from that experience will play a part remains to be seen but there’s something in the water here at Portrush that tells you it will only serve as an asset.

Another huge asset to Lowry will be the fact that his coach, Neil Manchip has remained with him in the house all week. Manchip’s as much a sports psychologist as he is a swing guru and given the honesty and openness of the duo’s bond, you’d like to think that sleeping on a four-shot lead wasn’t as big a deal for Lowry as it proved to be before.

“One particular moment I can remember and this kind of summarises what kind of relationship we have,” Lowry said yesterday about the role that Manchip plays in his game.

“I needed a caddie for me in Valderrama, years ago. I was playing and had a chance to win the tournament, playing the 17th. We got down and did the number and I said to him, ‘I’m absolutely shitting myself’. And he said – I don’t know what he said, but obviously he was just like – ‘that’s kind of the way it is’.

“I like to talk about things. I’m not going to be sitting there tomorrow morning in the house in a corner trying not to think about the day ahead. I’ll be talking about. Obviously I’ll go to bed thinking about holding the Claret Jug tomorrow evening. It’s only natural, isn’t it? We’re human. We’re not robots. We can’t not think about things. And when you try not to think about something, you end up thinking about it more, so you might as well talk about it.”

It’s an attitude that can only stand to Lowry over the course of his mission today. Sure, there’ll be nerves, how could there not be? But the man Shane Lowry is now looks fully equipped to use that energy to his advantage.

At Italia 90, upon David O’Leary stepping up to take the crucial penalty for Ireland against Romania, commentator George Hamilton uttered his most famous five words: the nation holds its breath.

A five hour round of golf is a long time for a nation to deprive itself of oxygen but if the week so far has been anything to go by, at roughly 7pm this evening, it will all be worth it. Hon Lowry!

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