Shane Lowry: I’m a different person to one who blew four-shot lead

Shane Lowry reckons he’s a “different person” to the one that blew a four-shot lead in the final round of the 2016 US Open at Oakmont. We’re about to find out.Cheered on by a frenzied home crowd, the Offaly man is the same margin clear again in a major. This one is on home soil. Lowry would be toasted from one end of the Emerald Isle to the other if he finishes the job off this time by winning the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush.

Open leader Shane Lowry celebrates a putt on the 15th hole. Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
Open leader Shane Lowry celebrates a putt on the 15th hole. Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
Open leader Shane Lowry celebrates a putt on the 15th hole. Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

“Honestly, that’s the most incredible day I’ve ever had on the golf course. I honestly can’t explain what it was like,” said the 32-year-old after setting up a golden chance to join Fred Daly (1947), Padraig Harrington (2007 and 2008), Darren Clarke (2011) and Rory McIlroy (2014) as an Irish winner of golf’s oldest major.

“Walking from the green to the next tee, the people are literally a yard away from you roaring in your face as loud as they can. If you have to get up and hit a drive down a tight fairway, it’s fairly difficult. I thought I dealt with it very well today and hopefully I do the same tomorrow.”

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Lowry, who is coached by Edinburgh man Neil Manchip, carded eight birdies in a course-record 63, leaving a 20-foot putt a fraction short at the 18th when he had an opportunity to join South African Branden Grace as the only player to sign for a 62 in a major. On 16-under-par, he leads by four shots from Englishman Tommy Fleetwood (66), with American JB Holmes (69) two further back in third.

With bad weather set to hit the Antrim venue, it’s not over yet, even though the fans cheering like a football crowd in the 18th green grandstands gave that impression after Lowry had completed his brilliant day’s work. Brooks Koepka, a major machine these days having finished first-second-first-second in the last four, and Justin Rose will be hoping some tough conditions can help them make up a seven-shot deficit on the leader. The same goes for Lee Westwood and Rickie Fowler, both a further stroke adrift.

It’s Lowry’s title to lose, though, and what a storyline that would be in the event’s return here for the first time in 68 years. The fans thought McIlroy would be their best chance of delivering a home win. They would also have been quietly confident about local duo Clarke and Graeme McDowell getting in the mix.

In contrast, Lowry had perhaps been overlooked in the build up. “I kind of felt like I could come here under the radar a little bit,” he said, though he’d been picked out by most betting pundits, partly due to having won the 2009 Irish Open at Baltray as an amateur. “But obviously I’m not quite under the radar anymore. I didn’t feel like I was the forgotten Irishman, but hopefully I’m the one they’re talking about tomorrow evening.”

On a day when a proper links breeze had dropped by the time the final few groups headed out, the top of the leaderboard was tightly packed before Lowry moved up a gear. Starting out in a share of top spot with Holmes, the 32-year-old got the ball rolling by knocking in a five-footer at the par-3 third then produced a nice pitch to six feet at the fifth, a short par-4.

With the bit between his teeth, an eight-foot birdie putt was converted at the ninth. He then used some local knowledge as his approach at the tenth rolled down off a bank at the left of the tenth to 10 feet before also picking up a shot at the 12th. The noise that greeted that was nothing compared to the roars for a hat-trick of birdies from the 15th. He admitted that his 4-iron tee shot at ‘Calamity’, the par-3 16th, had been “pushed 5-10 yards”, but it ended up 12 feet from the hole.

“Every time I had a putt today I just wanted to hole it because I wanted to hear that roar,” he said, lighting up the media centre with one of the best smiles in golf.

Oakmont, where he closed with a 76 to finish joint-second after opening the door for Dustin Johnston following a shaky start on the last day, stung at the time. Older and wiser, he’s ready for his chance of redemption. “It’s taken me three years to get back here,” he said. “Look, if I’m sitting here this time tomorrow evening it will be like one of the biggest things that’s ever happened to me, there’s no denying that.

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“But I’ve got certain things in my life that make it different. I’ve got family now. No matter what I shoot tomorrow my family will be waiting for me. I felt at the time in Oakmont that my golf meant a lot more to me back then than it does now. I’m not saying that it doesn’t mean everything, it’s my career. But I’ve got certain things in my life that make it different.

“In Abu Dhabi [where he won the HSBC Championship] at the start of this year, four ahead going into the final round, I said to my wife, just have her there waiting for me when I finish, because no matter what happens I’m going to be either standing there with the trophy or it’s going to be a disappointing day. And it’s going to be the same thing tomorrow.

“Obviously I’ll go to bed thinking about holding the Claret Jug tomorrow evening. It’s only natural, isn’t it? We’re human. We’re not robots. We can’t not think about things.

“I learned a lot about myself at Oakmont. I’m going to learn a lot about myself tomorrow. Tomorrow is a huge day in my career, but it probably doesn’t mean as much to me as it did then, which is going to make it a little bit easier. I don’t think I’m a much different golfer, but I feel like I’m a different person now. I think that’s what will help me tomorrow.”

Fleetwood carded five-birdies in a bogey-free effort to end the day as Lowry’s closest challenger. A repeat of the 63 he produced to finish second behind Koepka in last year’s US Open at Shinnecock Hills could silence that sell-out crowd on the last day. “Shane just played great and I’m four back. But that’s it, I’m just happy with how I played,” said the 28-year-old Englishman, who is bidding to emulate compatriot Max Faulkner, the 1951 champion, by winning here.

“I feel like the guys that are up there on the leaderboard, from what I’ve seen, are not going to be too fussed about the conditions,” added Fleetwood, the 2017 European No.1, as he looked ahead to the final day. “It’s not like it’s an advantage or disadvantage to anyone. I personally don’t mind the conditions, whatever they are. I feel like I’ve had some of my best rounds in terrible, terrible conditions, where I’ve enjoyed grinding it out.”

Holmes, who finished third behind Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon three years ago, birdied the last in his two-under effort. “That was really a cool experience to be a part of,” he said of playing with Lowry. “It wasn’t my day. It wasn’t like it was terrible. But you’re playing with a guy making everything, it feels like you shot a million. But I played well.”

The weather was bad on the last day at Baltray a decade ago. Can that be an omen for Lowry. “That was a long time ago,” he said, laughing. “I used to be good in bad weather back then, but I don’t play in bad weather any more!”