Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 22, 2019

A Lovely Day On The Links

It’s not as if those born on the second largest of the British Isles are strangers to the Claret Jug. Of the dozen Open Championships preceding this year’s tournament, four were claimed by golfers reared on Irish soil, be it in the independent republic that covers most of the island or the British province tucked away in its northeastern corner.

Padraig Harrington, a son of Dublin, defeated Sergio Garcia in a playoff at Carnoustie in 2007, and defended his title one year later at a brutally difficult Royal Birkdale. Darren Clarke, born in the Northern Ireland town of Dungannon, surprised the golfing world and quite possibly himself when he finished three stokes clear of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson at the 2011 Open, played at Royal St. George’s on England’s southeast coast. Clarke’s victory, coming a month after Rory McIlroy’s win at that year’s U.S. Open and just over a year since Graeme McDowell won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, led young McIlroy to quip that Ireland was “the golf capital of the world.” Three years later McIlroy, born and raised just outside Belfast in the town of Holywood, did his part to further that notion by going wire-to-wire at Royal Liverpool to claim the Claret Jug in 2014.

But as much as Irish fans, irrespective of their flag, exulted in those victories, this year’s Open Championship was altogether different. For just the second time ever and the first in nearly seven decades, the tournament to determine “the champion golfer of the year” was contested on the island that is home to those Open winners, all three of whom, along with McDowell and two other sons of Ireland were in this year’s starting field. In 1951 the R&A ventured across the Irish Sea for the only previous Open not played in England or Scotland. Sixty-eight years later the tournament returned to the incredibly scenic and devilishly difficult links at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

Fans swarmed the ancient links throughout the week, nearly a quarter million in all, using tickets that had been scooped up months ago in record time for an Open Championship. They were there to welcome the finest golfers in the world back to Portrush, but surely there were also many in attendance dreaming of the perfect ending to this year’s Open – a win by another native son.

As Thursday’s opening round approached the smart money supporting a local winner was on McIlroy. Currently ranked third in the world, and with a total of ninety-five weeks at number one, the 30-year-old set the Portrush course record by firing a 10-under par 61 while just a teenager in 2005. The layout had been modified for the Open, with changes to the routing and two new holes replacing the old 17th and 18th to make room for hospitality tents, but McIlory’s history, local knowledge, four major titles, and wins this year at The Players Championship and the RBC Canadian Open put him atop many lists of pre-tournament favorites.

Which only made the shock that much greater when he hooked his opening tee shot far left and out of bounds. McIlroy’s first hole got no better from there, with his next drive finishing in deep rough, an approach shot landing in a gorse bush resulting in a second penalty stroke, and two putts once he finally reached the green for a quadruple-bogey eight. Within ten minutes of beginning play his tournament was all but over. By his own assessment McIlroy’s suddenly slim chances were damaged as much by the finish to round one, when he dropped five shots to par in the final three holes, as by its disastrous beginning. After shooting 79 on Thursday he fought back with one of the best rounds of the Open on Friday, but his 6-under par 65 left him one shot outside the cut line.

While McIlroy was gone by Friday evening, somewhat surprisingly Irish hopes were not. Shane Lowry, from the little town of Clara in the midlands of Ireland, signed his scorecard for his second straight 67, good for a share of first place with American J.B. Holmes at 8-under par. The 32-year-old began the week better known to fans of the European Tour, on which he had posted five wins, than to followers of the PGA Tour, where his only previous victory was at the 2015 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. But while he wasn’t readily recognizable to U.S. fans, Lowry arrived at Portrush in decent form. He won the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January, charging over the final holes to erase a four-shot deficit. Then in May he posted a very respectable eighth place finish at the PGA Championship won by Brooks Koepka.

Every bit as important, Lowry proved early on in his golfing career that he could withstand the unique pressure of playing in front of a home crowd. While still an amateur he won the 2009 Irish Open, besting European Tour veteran Robert Rock on the third hole of a playoff. The victory was just the second “home” win at Ireland’s national championship since 1982.

The wind laid down Saturday afternoon, making Portrush vulnerable for the late starters. Playing in the final group with Holmes, Lowry took full advantage of the favorable conditions. After opening with two pars, he birdied the 3rd, 5th and 9th holes to turn in 3-under 33. Then on the inward nine Lowry couldn’t put a foot wrong. Five birdies and four pars gave him a scorching 30 for a total of 63. That was good for a course record on the new Portrush layout, the lowest 54-hole total in Open history at 197, and, most important, a four shot lead heading into the final round.

Sunday’s weather was a reminder of how quickly conditions can change in the land of links golf. The wind blew and for a time in the middle part of the round a driving rain appeared to be coming down sideways. Had this been a weekly PGA Tour stop it’s almost certain that play would have been suspended. But links courses built on sandy soil near the sea drain exceptionally well, and with lightning rarely a concern golfers in Ireland, Scotland, and England don’t think twice about playing on through driving rain.

Still the wet and windy day wasn’t for everyone. Jordan Spieth shot 77, Justin Rose and Matt Kuchar each returned a 79, and Holmes, Lowry’s one-time co-leader, staggered in with a score of 87. When Lowry made bogey at the opening hole his lead was down to three over Tommy Fleetwood, and some in the crowd may have wondered if the local favorite would also fall victim to the weather. But that was as close as any golfer chasing the leader came all day.  Birdies on the 4th, 5th and 7th put minds at ease, as the partisan cheers built through the afternoon. He made three bogeys during the worst of the weather, but by that time Lowry’s lead was secure. In the end it was a six-shot victory and a dream come true for both the winner and thousands of fans. With the hopes of an entire island on his shoulders, Shane Lowry made certain that a little rain didn’t dampen a grand day for Irish golf.

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