PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Shane Lowry stood on the first tee here Sunday with a four-stroke lead and five ways the day could go wrong. If he looked closely, he could spot most of them. No. 1: The Irish flag hanging behind him; he carried an island’s sporting hopes, as though winning his first major was not hard enough on its own. Through the flag, one could see No. 2: a sign that read NO EXIT, which is golf’s reality. There are no teammates to bail you out and no hiding from the game.
No. 3 was on the tee with Lowry: English star Tommy Fleetwood, one of the world’s finest players, ready to slip into any opening Lowry provided. No. 4 was the forecast: rain and wind and everything short of pestilence.
And No. 5 was Lowry himself, he of the blown third-round lead at the 2016 U.S. Open, the questions about his fortitude, and his own suspicion that people were right about him. A year ago, he sat in the car park at Carnoustie and was so distraught about his game that he cried.
He woke up Sunday morning and still wasn’t sure he was good enough to win a major championship. He knew, though, that he wanted to find out.
Lowry put his first drive in the rough and his approach in a bunker, and you could sense the betting odds shifting beneath his feet. His lead suddenly seemed highly surmountable. But this is when Lowry reached somewhere inside the shirt with Bank of Ireland over the heart and found his answer. He drained an 8-foot bogey putt. He made par on the next two holes. Shane Lowry had announced to the field that this time, he was not going to beat himself.
By the time the weather turned impolite, Lowry was two–under par for the day and 18–under for the tournament, and he was standing on the eighth tee with a six-shot lead. Fleetwood retained hope (“It always feels closer when you’re playing,” he said later) but afterward, he used one word again and again to describe Lowry’s round: control. Lowry controlled the golf ball. He controlled the tournament. And he had learned, finally, to control himself.
Lowry, who grew up in County Offally in the Irish midlands, is not just from Ireland. He is of Ireland. He has the Irish flag on his golf shoes. He has long carried a ball marker with a shamrock on it. He does not just remember Irishman Padraig Harrington winning this tournament twice; he has seen the Claret Jug on Harrington’s kitchen table. When he was a kid sinking putts, imagining he won a major, “it was always the Open.” His caddy, Bo Martin, is from Belfast.
Most of the world’s best golfers had long treks to get here. Brooks Koepka, the world No. 1, had never been to Northern Ireland. Lowry climbed in his car and arrived four hours later. And when he got here, he found a gallery that was talking about seemingly every Irishman except him.
Darren Clarke, the 50-year-old local legend, hit the first tee shot here Thursday morning and nearly made the cut. Graeme McDowell, the other local legend and one of the game’s most delightful talkers, held court with the media. Rory McIlroy, who is not quite local (he grew up near Belfast) but is Northern Ireland’s finest golfer, was the pre–tournament favorite. McIlroy botched his opening round every which way, but his stirring charge to try to make the cut overwhelmed the tournament Friday.
Lowry said Saturday night that he kind of liked having nobody pay attention to him. He did not need that kind of spotlight. He still wasn’t entirely sure how he would handle it. Lowry looks and acts like an everyman, and while some golfers insist they have played better than it appears, Lowry seems more conscious of what he hasn’t done. Sunday night, somebody mentioned that he has won two World Golf Championship events, and Lowry smiled and said, “One.”
When he blew that four-shot lead at Oakmont in the 2016 U.S. Open, Lowry saw it as a blip. He said a month later: “I genuinely believe that I'm, without sounding too cocky, I like the big-time play. I like the big tournaments. I love playing in front of the big crowds.” But that confidence seemed to fade with his play. He did not make the 2018 European Ryder Cup team. He fired his caddy and hired Martin. He seemed lost.
Martin helped him relax and rediscover his game, and what Lowry found is the joy of caring just the right amount. He said Saturday that he is the same golfer he was in 2016, but he is a different person now. He and his wife Wendy have a two-year-old girl, Iris. You talk about control: The one thing he could guarantee Sunday was that when he putted out on 18, he would see Iris.
“My wife knew, no matter what, to have her there,” Lowry said.
He played like a man whose daughter can’t read a leaderboard. This was a beautiful sloppy Open day. Koepka opened with four bogeys and shot 74. Rickie Fowler opened each nine with a double-bogey and shot 74. Jordan Spieth shot 77. J.B. Holmes, who was 10-under to start the day, shot 87.
Lowry made four bogeys, but no doubles, and those four came when the weather was its worst. (Fleetwood said “I made a par on 9 that felt like a birdie.”)
The fifth hole at Portrush would be a prime contestant in a golf-hole pageant: a short dogleg right, downhill toward the ocean, with a view of Dunluce Castle from the green. Lowry arrived with a five-shot lead. On a balcony behind him, a banner read: Go Graeme. Fleetwood drove the green. Lowry did not. But he chipped close, holed his birdie putt, and kept Fleetwood at arm’s length.
“I kept on telling (Martin) how nervous I was, how scared I was, how much I didn’t want to mess it up,” Lowry said.
This is not how a man is supposed to think when he holds a major-championship lead. But Lowry has learned not to fake serenity. Talking about it helps him. Lowry seems plagued by a strange sort of denial: he won the Irish Open as an amateur, but said “it’s funny, sometimes I struggle to play in front of home crowds.” In the gallery, he noticed faces he recognized but did not expect to see; he assumed they drove in Sunday morning because he had the lead. He was determined to hang onto it.
Lowry bogeyed No. 11. Fleetwood birdied No. 12 while Lowry parred.. Lowry found a bunker on the par-three 13th. This may have looked and felt like choking, but it wasn’t. It was just golf. Lowry got up–and–down for his par and walked to the 14th hole with a four-shot lead.
By the time he hit a solid tee shot at the 17th, he knew it was over. As he walked up 18, “I welled up a little bit and Bo told me to catch a hold of myself.” He had one shot and two putts to hit.
When Lowry finished, with an astounding six-shot win, Harrington and McDowell and Irish golfer Gary Murphy were waiting for him, and so was Koepka’s caddy, Ricky Elliott, who grew up in Portrush and was a very good amateur golfer. Iris was there, too, just as Shane and Wendy planned. Someday, Iris will understand what she saw, and what it meant, and what it says about her daddy.