The home fans went nuts when he won the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009, but that would be tame in comparison. You’ll hear the roar from across the Irish Sea, in fact, if Shane Lowry can keep this going.
The 32-year-old shares the lead at the halfway stage in the 148th Open Championship. Twenty years after Paul Lawrie won the Claret Jug on home soil, Lowry has given himself a chance to do the trick as well at Royal Portrush. After opening with two 67s, the man from Clara in Co. Offaly is tied for top spot on eight under par with American JB Holmes. Tommy Fleetwood and Lee Westwood sit one back, closely followed by another English player, Justin Rose, as well as Australian Cameron Smith and South African Justin Harding.
After roar after roar swept across the County Antrim course as Lowry started with a hat-trick of birdies and kept his foot to the pedal by also picking up shots at the fifth and ninth to turn in 31, a second wave of excitement swept across the place later in the day.
That came as Rory McIlroy, one of the local heroes here, carded a brilliant 65, equalling the best round of the day, only to fall agonisingly short in his bid to overcome a nightmare 79 on day one to make it to the weekend. He missed out by just one shot, but headed home to Holywood, near Belfast, with his head held high. While disappointed to finish with a bogey after he “duffed” an 8-iron with his approach at the last, it was still a day to cherish for Lowry.
“Yeah, it’s nice,” he admitted of his position heading into the final 36 holes in the tournament’s return here after a gap of 68 years. “If they had offered it to me at the start of the week, I would have taken it. I’m really happy to be where I am. I really, really enjoyed today. There’s not too many days like that on the golf course. Hopefully more of the same tomorrow and see where it leaves me.”
The four-time European Tour winner, who is coached by Edinburgh man Neil Manchip, described the roar that greeted a birdie putt dropping at the par-3 third as “unbelievable” and said the one that then followed at the tenth on ten-under as “incredible” as that earned him the outright lead on ten-under.
“You can’t but smile, you can’t but laugh how it is,” he added, having given himself a chance to join McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke as Irish major winners over the past decade or so. “There’s no point trying to shy away from it. It’s an incredible feeling getting applauded on every green, every tee box.”
Lowry’s biggest win to date came in the 2015 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. In the 2016 US Open at Oakmont, he let a four-shot lead slip in the final round. This could be his chance to make amends for that disappointment.
“Oakmont was so long ago and I was a lot younger,” said Lowry, who revealed he’d been put off by noise from a TV screen as he hit his tee shot at the penultimate hole. “It took me a while to get over it, but I got over it. I feel like if I get the opportunity this week I’ll be better.”
Holmes, the man who makes people barking mad as one of golf’s slow coaches, is a dog lover who normally travels to tournaments with the family pet. A miniature Goldendoodle called Ace has been left at home in the US this week, but it was the main topic of the 37-year-old’s second visit to the media centre in less than 24 hours after sustaining his strong start in the season’s final major.
“We got him at a charity auction, actually, for about $5,000, which has been the cheapest thing about the dog so far,” said Holmes after backing up an opening 66 with an equally impressive 68.
“At the time, I didn’t think we would be able to keep him. It was the end of the season. I didn’t want to have a dog and be gone the whole time and have to crate the dog. It wasn’t fair to him.
“So we found out a way to be able to get him to travel. And he’s been with us and he’s pretty much six months old. He’s pretty much grown. He’s been on hundreds of planes probably. I don’t know how many flights he’s taken, but he’s been on a bunch.”
After he’d stormed into contention, Fleetwood, a fellow dog lover, said he was a “little bit jealous” of Holmes being able to travel around the US with some canine company.
“It’s a little pain getting him through the airport sometimes,” added Holmes. “But it’s worth it having a piece of home, being able to travel with a piece of home with you. He’s like a family member. You ask my 18-month-old son, who’s his best buddy, he says, Ace, it’s nice to have him around.
“It’s nice to have the family out on the Tour. It’s comforting. If you’re a dog person and you have dogs, he sleeps with us in the bed and he’s part of the family.
“My son is not here and my dog is gone, so, yeah [I’m missing them]. We FaceTime the son and the dog is in the background, they’re never too far apart. He hears our voice, he doesn’t much like the phone.”
Does the Kentucky man feel like there is a hole in his life this week? “My wife’s here, so I’m good,” he replied, smiling.
Despite McIlroy being joined in making an early exit by Tiger Woods, it’s a tasty leaderboard.
But, with all due respect to the others in the mix, there’s no guessing who would easily be the most popular Champion Golfer of the Year come Sunday night.