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  • Right behind Holmes and Lowry sits a pack of superstars, including Brooks Koepka, chasing the Claret Jug.
By Daniel Rapaport
July 19, 2019

A man from the Irish island is leading the Open Championship heading into the weekend at Royal Portrush. Playing like a man wanting to impress fans starved of major championship golf for 68 years, he played an inspired two rounds and will be the clear crowd favorite from here on out.  He’s joined atop the leaderboard by a man from Kentucky, with Ryder Cup experience, who got off to a fast start and kept it going on Friday.

We speak not of Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, of course. We speak of Shane Lowry and J.B. Holmes. Those two bearded men sit at 8-under and will play in the final group Saturday, but their task will be anything but routine—a host of superstars sit in that 1-to-5 shots back range. Lurking, as they say in this business.

Here are three questions heading into what should be a compelling weekend of action in Northern Ireland.

How will Shane Lowry handle the pressure?

The Northern Irish contingent disappointed this week. Despite a valiant effort from Rory McIlroy, he missed the cut. Graeme McDowell will play the weekend but he’s far from contention. And Darren Clarke followed up an impressive opening-round 71 with a 74 and he, too, is finished for the week.

That means the hometown support will shift to Shane Lowry, who is from south of the border but was treated by the fans as one of their own all day Friday. This isn’t the first time the 32-year-old has been in contention at a major—he led the 2016 U.S. Open by four shots heading into Sunday and wound up finishing second, and he won the 2015 WGC-Brigestone. It also isn’t the first time he’s played great golf on the Irish island—he won the Irish Open as a 22-year-old amateur in 2009.

But this night of sleep will be unlike anything he’s experienced before. Leading the Open Championship, knowing he’s the sentimental favorite, with so many great players nipping at his heels. He won’t tee off until close to 3 p.m. local time, so he’ll have a ton of time to ruminate over the task that lies ahead. How will he respond?

Which world-class player(s) will emerge from the pack?

For as unexpected as the top of the leaderboard is, if you divert your eyes just a bit lower, you’ll find a ton of familiar names. Tommy Fleetwood is just one back, as is Lee Westwood (more on him in just a second). Justin Rose is a shot further behind. Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth sit 5-under. Jon Rahm, Matt Kuchar and Tony Finau are well within striking distance at four back. And at 3-under, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and Xander Schauffele are one low round from being very much in this thing.

More than one of these guys is going to be a serious factor come Sunday afternoon. The question is: Who will it be?

If we’ve learned anything from the past two years, Koepka has to be the prime suspect. But Rahm is playing some of the best golf of his career. Rose is striking the ball way better than he did at Pebble Beach, where he finished T3. Fleetwood is no stranger to star-studded leaderboards. Spieth is putting like ’15 Spieth. DJ is DJ. Stenson might be the hottest player on the planet. Kuchar sure as hell ain’t going to beat himself. Finau can rip off birdies with them best of them. Schauffele is quietly one of the five best major-championship players in the world over the past couple years.

Should Lowry and Holmes struggle, this could turn into an absolute slugfest between stars.

Does Lee Westwood have one more run in him?

On this side of the pond, Lee Westwood is known as the guy who always seemed to be in contention for huge events without ever winning one. He’s one of the best players of all time to never win a major championship, and prior to this week it seemed almost certain that he’d end his career without one.

Suddenly, after a 68-67 start, he’s in fantastic position to pull off a Cinderella run and finally, finally, finally get his. It wouldn’t be an unprecedented development at the Open, which has been a breeding ground for the older guys to pull off one more victory—Darren Clarke was well past his prime when he won the 2011 Open at 43. The next year, Ernie Els won what was his last major championship at 42.

Westwood is 46. He’s got a new, stress-free outlook on golf. “I literally don’t care,” he said Friday, suggesting he’s just happy to still be competing with guys half his age. Maybe this carefree attitude is what he needed to get over the hump. There’s a long way to go, but you can’t win a tournament if you don’t put yourself in position to do so. He has done the first part. Will this be the time he finishes it out? Time will tell.

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Eagle (-2)
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