Shane Lowry was not only full of praise for new European Ryder Cup captain Henrik Stenson but also declared his determination to qualify automatically next year for the Swede’s team heading to Rome.
Lowry and fellow Irishman Graeme McDowell found themselves grouped with Stenson for the opening two rounds of this week’s Valspar Championship near Naples in Florida.
And as hinted ahead of tee-off, it came as no surprise what the topic of conversation was among the trio of Major Champions as they headed out onto the rain-softened host Copperhead Course.
“It’s great to have Henrik as captain as he’s an absolute legend of European golf”, said Lowry.
“I was saying to him out there today it’s just great news Henrik has been appointed the new European captain, and being part of the last team, I’m determined to be a part of his team next year.
“We’ve got home advantage next year and I’ve only ever played in the one Ryder Cup, last year at Whistling Straits, so I don’t even know what it will be like playing at home.
“It will be nice though to see a number of younger European players hopefully make the team, and hopefully we can challenge well and win back the Ryder Cup”.
Lowy, wearing his St. Patrick’s Day green shirt, was speaking after the famed ‘Snake Pit’ jumped out to bite him on the final hole.
The Irishman was proudly lying at three-under before leaking his drive right up the last, the final hole of the three that make-up the ‘Snake Pit’. He managed to put his 161-yard second shot onto the green but some 42-feet right of the hole from where three-putted for his bogey ‘5’, with his two-under 69 total seeing him drop to just outside the top-50 in the $7.8m event.
Four players – Venezelan Jhonattan Vegas, 2017 Valspar winner Adam Hadwin of Canada, defending champ, Sam Burns and his fellow American David Lipsky – share the lead thanks to seven-under-par 64s. Burns drained a 14-footer for birdie at the last to tie Vegas and then Hadwin saw a 24-foot birdie putt drop also on 18 to make it a threesome before Lipksy made it four atop of the board.
Justin Thomas admitted he was in ‘zombie’ mode in teeing-up but afterwards shook-off last week’s golfing jet-lag to be one of the biggest movers late in his round of an eventual five-under 66. Thomas was one-under after 13 holes but then drained a monster 63-foot putt for an eagle ‘3’ at 14, then also birdied the next two holes and afterwards mirrored the comments of most who had competed in Monday’s concluding Players Championship.
“I was very tired this morning after last week, and just getting out there and getting into a rhythm”, said Thomas.
“I slept for about nine-and-a-half hours last night and woke up kind of feeling like a zombie today, and it’s probably the most fatigued and tired I’ve felt for some time”.
The Copperhead course was really there for the taking on day one of the $7.8m event with close to 90 players under par which is more than the 20-year tournament record of 76 players who were under par after day one in the 2012 tournament.
Lowry, and despite the mishap on the last, could be pleased with his effort.
The key to Lowry’s good score was playing the four par-5s in three-under par in returning to the event for only the second time in his career, having joined Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy travelling to the Tampa course initially in 2018.
Four years ago, Lowry did not break 70 till posting a final day 67 and on his return he made it two sub-70s in succession.
Lowry kick-started his round, holing a seven-footer at the first and then making it two birdies in four holes in draining a 12-footer from right of the flag at the uphill par-3 fourth hole.
He missed the green right at the par-3 eighth hole and then left his chip-shot some seven feet shy of the flag to drop a shot though Lowry was back to one-under. It went to three-under with birdie on eleven followed by a 17-foot birdie at 14 ahead of three pars and the bogey on 18.
In contrast, Graeme McDowell struggled with his approach play, letting him down with seven opening pars and then ending his outward nine with back-to-back bogeys.
McDowell, making his fifth visit to the Valspar, was then three-over after a bogey at 11 before finding the side door for birdie at the next, and then backed that up sinking a 17-footer for a second straight birdie at the par-3 13th.
However, the course jumped-up to again take a bite when McDowell found the water guarding the green and the par-5 14th before a run of four pars for his two-over 73.
Stenson, who was one-over through eight holes, regrouped to birdie the 13th and 14th in a one-under par 70.