Few who witnessed it will ever forget a fresh-faced Shane Lowry jumping up and down with joy after sinking the winning putt on the third extra playoff hole against a sodden Robert Rock at the Irish Open at Baltray in 2009. The down to earth Offaly amateur quickly captured the hearts of a golfing nation when he surprisingly bolted into contention at the event before achieving the unthinkable in typically torrential sideways weather conditions on an Irish links. 10 years on and it remains a success story of the fairy-tale variety and a fast-track transition from the amateur circuit to the professional ranks that few, if anyone, will ever emulate. But what was it like for the main protagonist, Shane Lowry?
Unlike most fledgling pros, when Lowry left the comforts of the GUI nest to take first flight, he did so with a protective crashmat in the shape of a two-year European Tour exemption for winning at Baltray. Where most players enter the competitive cauldron of professional golf with the limiting mindset of trying to hold onto some form of status with dear life, Lowry’s challenge was to acclimatise quickly to a new job and working environment that was handing him a two-year contract; a different sort of pressure and one that soon told in his play on Tour.
“I remember my first few events as a professional, I shot what felt like millions over par,” Lowry recalled with a hearty laugh.
“I was shooting late to mid-seventies every round I played and missed my first three cuts. But it’s a different type of golf in the professional game and it takes time. People don’t understand and think it’s easy. People at home see Rory doing what he’s doing and lads winning majors and it’s like people think, ‘oh sure it’s easy!’
“You do alright on the European Tour and then it’s, ‘when is he going to win a major?’ But people have to realise that there’s 156 guys teeing up each week and that’s not many people when you take the amount of people that’s in the world. I think people just need to sit back and take stock of what we have in Ireland instead of always looking for what’s next.”
The conveyor belt of talent coming out of Ireland is of no great surprise to Lowry but his suggestion that we maybe take our stock for granted is arguably a fair one. This year has seen Robin Dawson become the latest leading amateur to take the leap in pursuing a professional dream and with Gavin Moynihan now finding his feet amongst the elite, Paul Dunne a European Tour winner and the likes of Cormac Sharvin and Michael Hoey threatening a return to golf’s top table, it’s fair to say that Ireland can still mix it with the best of them despite our island’s stature.
Still, even with a healthy raft of amateurs making their way through the ranks behind that first wave, when a so-called ‘next big thing’ attempts to make the jump from the amateur circuit to the professional one, Lowry insists there’s much more to the transition than simply playing golf, things the golfing public must consider when casting their critical eye.
“Golf is not just about playing golf, it really isn’t,” Lowry said. “You need to be able to travel the world on your own and you need to be able to be on your own all the time. You need to be able to make sacrifices and be self-motivated to work because there’s no one telling you to do it, you have to do it for yourself. That’s the difference with golf and other sports, you’re kind of on your own a lot. You just have to learn how to do it your own way.”
Perhaps then, Lowry learned how to adapt to the professional environment faster than most but although his famous victory at Baltray is understandably depicted as a bolt of lightning flashing before the golfing world out of the blue, Lowry remembers his form of that year in the lead up to the tournament, as he quietly went about his business as a relative unknown, as anything but ordinary.
“I remember I’d played great golf all year in the lead up to Baltray in ’09,” he said. “I don’t think I’d finished outside of the top-10. I know it was only amateur golf but still I was going pretty good and I played well at the Lytham Trophy a few weeks previous.
“I remember I shot a great 66 in the first round. Tony Disley, who was one of the Walker Cup selectors at the time, followed me for that round and I think I was leading by three after the first round, so I was kinda like… that’s me almost cemented as a real Walker Cup contender for later that year. Then at the Irish Amateur at Royal Dublin the following week, which is the week before the Irish Open, I finished sixth so I had a lot of links golf under my belt before making the trip to Co Louth.”
Lowry drove home from Bull Island that Sunday with another 36-hole of links golf in the locker before making the trip to County Louth unaware that his life was about to change forever.
“My Mam washed my clothes when I got home that night and I was back into my Mitsubishi Colt at nine o’clock the next morning and straight up to Baltray for the practice rounds, it was mad. I mean, I’d never do it now but I was excited to get out and get a feel for it. I think that’s why I did so well, there was no expectation going into it and I was just happy to be there and have a chance to tee it up.”
Expectations on a young Irish amateur getting the opportunity to compete amongst the game’s best might be slim to none, but even being priced at a hefty 250-1 with most bookmakers that week didn’t deter Lowry’s biggest fan and mother, Bridget from staking €50 each-way on her son’s talent. It proved a shrewd investment, yet when looking at it with hindsight, maybe not quite as farfetched as you’d think.
“I knew Baltray very well and I remember I got off to a really bad start and I was three over through five holes on the opening morning. I ended up shooting five–under that day and then shot a 10-under par 62 on the Friday. So, if you look at it, I was actually 18-under for the next thirty-one holes which was a bit ridiculous to be honest,” Lowry admitted.
“It all happened so quickly. I remember sitting down with Alan, my brother, on the Friday night in our house for the week saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ – it was unbelievable!”
Suddenly the Offaly man’s name was featuring in the weekend sports pages, so much so that even his Landlady for the week was taking notice of her latest guest.
“We had a small house rented in Termonfeckin that was meant to be for 4 people max and I think there was eleven of us in the house on the Friday night and even more on the Saturday night, it was mental,” Lowry smiled.
“It’s funny actually, the house was costing €400 for the week plus extra for electricity. We were going around in the dark all week not wanting to switch the lights on and run up a bill! On Sunday morning before I was leaving for the course, the woman that owned the house slid a note under the door. She obviously realised what was going on golf–wise and wished me good luck and the letter ended, ‘P.S the electricity is free!!’ It was very funny.”
Lowry left his now heated abode a bag of nerves and having skipped breakfast that Sunday morning, coach Neil Manchip force fed him some much needed fuel at Baltray to ensure his charge wouldn’t faint on the first tee. Once he teed off on the opening hole, however, Lowry settled down fast and it so happened that the weather delays of Saturday played to his advantage too as he didn’t have long to wait on Sunday morning ahead of a rushed start.
“People seem to forget as well that during the final round the weather didn’t get bad until about the 14th tee. But when it came down and when the weather’s bad, you’re just literally trying to stay dry and you’re trying to keep your clubs, grips and glove dry and that’s all you’re trying to do. Maybe, if the weather was good and clear, you have a bit more time to think! So, the weather kind of helped too.”
But don’t for one second think that the occasion was lost on the then 22-year old amateur.
“I remember Rocky [Robert Rock] holing a good putt on the 17th and getting back to all square with me - I nearly got sick. Looking back now, to play the last like I did and how aggressive I was, it’s amazing. I pushed my tee-shot down the right of the Par–5 18th, I actually got pretty lucky and I had decent line to the green but the ball was in a big lump of rough and not lying great. I took my 3 wood out and had a go at it, I would never do it now. It’s strange I just went for it, that’s the way I played all that week.”
Indeed, the exuberance of youth played in Lowry’s favour but when a four-foot putt for the win slipped low and left past the 72-hole, the picture of a crestfallen amateur pulling his hat down over his face as his dream was rudely awoken should have been enough to ensure there was no coming back for the fan favourite. Yet, when he picked himself up, took a breath and saw who was awaiting him in the playoff, hope again sprang eternal.
“No disrespect to Robert [Rock] or Johan [Edfors] but it wasn’t Monty or Lee Westwood I was teeing it up against so I wasn’t intimidated by them and my golf remained aggressive,” he added.
“I remember when I missed that putt to win, which was no more than four-feet, I wished the ground would have opened up and I would have jumped into it. That was tough but I am very proud about how I bounced back from it straight away.”
After grinding out halves over the first two playoff holes, this time it was Rock’s turn to buckle under the pressure. The Englishman’s par putt missed, leaving Lowry a mere 18 inches for the win. He wasn’t going to let this one miss. When the putt dropped, the crowd invasion signalled the beginning of a love affair with Shane Lowry and the ordinary Irish golf fan that has only blossomed further ever since, but how does Lowry remember the moment?
“The winning moment after that is all just a blur,” he confessed. “It’s mad looking back on it and how composed I was. You know, I really can’t see anyone ever winning their home tournament as an amateur again! Especially not the Irish Open with the fields we are getting now. It was a week that changed my life and I will never forget it.”
10 years later and Lowry’s desire still burns bright although his perspective has understandably been altered with age. Far from the spritely amateur who shocked the world and catapulted himself onto the pro circuit all starry-eyed and willing, the HSBC Abu Dhabi champion is now among the more experienced heads on Tour, generously helping where possible, any young Irish player paving their own path like Lowry once did a decade ago.
“The Irish lads on Tour were great to me,” he acknowledged. “Peter Lawrie, Damien McGrane, Gary Murphy and Padraig Harrington would always go out of their way to make sure I wasn’t alone. I do the same for the younger lads now. It can be lonely sitting in a hotel room on your own and we all try to avoid it.
“One of my first events out as a pro I remember getting dinner by room service one night and it was horrendous sitting there on my own. Since that night in 2009 I have probably only done that twice. I need to have someone to go with me for dinner. I have family and friends at events as much as possible too. You really need that away from the course.”
It’s away from the course that life has changed most for Lowry since that win at Baltray. Now a proud husband to wife Wendy and a proud father to his daughter Iris, his priorities may have shifted slightly off the golf course but winning still motivates him greatly. Where the highs of his Irish Open win soared ecstatically through the air, there’s been plenty of lows along the way too with his final round 76 at the US Open at Oakmont still a sore subject to this day.
There’s no doubt that Lowry strives to win one of golf’s four Majors but to those outside his circle at least, it’s no longer portrayed as the be all and end all it often is by other players. For Lowry, getting caught up in the fishnet that is the bigger picture has never proved helpful and although he hopes his game is good enough to tick all the boxes that the public all too frequently throw at him, despite meaning well, he won’t get there by obsessing over the destination without first enjoying the journey.
“That’s the way golf is, it’s funny like that,” he smiled. “At the US Open, I played as good a golf as I had ever played and as good a golf as can be played. I just didn’t do it on the Sunday. But I try and put stuff like that behind me. I found it hard to put that behind me back then and I let it get in the way… I missed out on the Ryder Cup team because of it.
“That’s the problem with golf; no matter what you do this week, there is always next week. That’s the good thing about it as well. It has its pros and its cons I suppose. No matter how bad it is, you can always play better next week. You always have next week to do well. It just doesn’t always work out like that.”
Since winning the Irish Open at Baltray in 2009, most weeks have proved better than the average for Shane Lowry. With over $20 million earned from his playing exploits alone, he’s worked hard to provide a life for himself and his family that few could only dream. But where his bank balance and the opportunities that came with it have changed drastically, Lowry the man remains as grounded as the young buck who rocked up to the Baltray clubhouse in his Mitsubishi Colt in 2009 dreaming of becoming an Irish Open champion. If that doesn’t inspire future generations of Irish golfing stars, nothing will.