PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — The forecast for the final round of the British Open includes pouring rain and winds gusting more than 40 miles per hour, according to the nearest weather app, or as they think of in Northern Ireland: “nice.” Also nice: an Irishman is running away with the thing.
Shane Lowry shot a bogey-free 63 that had a can-I-top-this feel to it: three birdies on the front, five on the back, one magnificent approach after another. The crowd here in Ireland may have enjoyed it a wee bit.
“Honestly,” Lowry said, “that’s the most incredible day I’ve ever had on the golf course. I honestly can’t explain what it was like.”
It was like this: fans “literally a yard away from you, roaring in your face, as loud as they can.” It was so loud and so much in favor of one golfer that it was hard to separate the golf from the gallery. Lowry said afterward, “I don’t really remember much of the round.” The ball seemed to move by consensus.
Forty-two years ago, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson separated themselves from the field at Turnberry in what is known as the Duel in the Sun. Get ready for the Duel in the Storm. There is Shane Lowry. There is Tommy Fleetwood. And there is everybody else.
Lowry is 16-under. Fleetwood is 12-under. J.B. Holmes is in third place at 10-under, and after that you find Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose (both at nine-under) and a group of guys who are, at the moment, telling their significant others they have a shot. They almost certainly don’t. But it is a nice test of their relationships.
The British Open officially crowns the Champion Golfer of the Year, yet we all know the champion golfer of this year is Koepka, and he is probably not going to win the British. This is especially annoying for Koepka because he has played magnificent golf all week. He has avoided bunkers. He has put together one clean round after another. If only the holes were two inches wider, he would probably be winning this thing.
Alas, Koepka’s putter has not agreed with him all week. He has not hit many awful putts; he just hasn’t hit many really good ones. He said after his round Friday that he would work on his putting; he was on and off the practice green in seven minutes. Apparently there was no big fix.
“There’s some weeks where you just don’t make anything,” Koepka said. “They feel like good putts coming off the blade. But they’re burning the edge. That’s the only thing I can say: They feel like good putts. The speed is fine.”
Fleetwood hit a few. Lowry hit more. And so Lowry grabbed a large lead on a course that looked ready to host the British Open but played like a regular PGA Tour stop. Royal Portrush was soft, and the wind was more of a breeze. It did not call for the kind of ground game we saw at Carnoustie last year. Rickie Fowler, who shot 66, said it was “probably as far away from links golf as you can get on a links golf course.”
Sunday will be different; it will be a proper British Open day. It will be a severe test of a man who is four shots clear of Tommy Fleetwood and six shots clear of everybody else. Say a prayer for poor Koepka, who likes to plan his shot, grab a club, and hit the ball in short order, but will be paired with Holmes, who does nothing in short order. Koepka will also be looking up at the leaderboard, knowing he could be on top of it with a normal putting week.
Tee times have been moved up, to avoid the worst of the weather. Although Lowry is from Ireland, and as Fleetwood said, “he’s not played in sunshine and no wind all his life,” Lowry would probably be just as happy if the weather is benign. You often hear players who are several shots off the lead entering the final round say they hope the weather will be bad, so scores will be high. Lowry is in the opposite position. He would probably sign for anything under par right now and see if anybody can beat him. The only one who realistically could is Fleetwood.
This is a one-group final round until further notice. Fleetwood knows Lowry is the fans’ favorite. Lowry knows it, too. Let’s find out how both men handle that.