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Lowry breaks through with incredible escapes at WGC

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AKRON, Ohio – With plenty of time to kill before his final-round tee time, Shane Lowry admitted that he spent much of his Sunday morning envisioning how the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational trophy would look in his hands.

Thanks to a round that was part ball-striking clinic and part lessons in forestry escape, the Irishman’s vision became a reality.

Lowry fired a bogey-free, 4-under 66 at Firestone Country Club, racing past Jim Furyk and Justin Rose and holding off Bubba Watson to claim his first PGA Tour victory.

After sweating the world rankings to simply earn a spot in this week’s 77-man field, Lowry used the opportunity to announce his newfound presence among the game’s upper tier, now projected to crack the top 20.

While he lacked the credentials of his three closest competitors, Lowry’s self-belief never wavered.

“I don’t think there was any point out there that I thought I couldn’t win,” Lowry said. “I thought I was right in the driving seat most of the day. I played the golf course quite well.”

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Lowry began the day alone in third place, two shots behind Furyk and Rose, and he made an early move with birdies on Nos. 2 and 8 to take the lead.

Then the fun really began.

Navigating his way through uncharted territory on the PGA Tour, Lowry bookended his final nine with a pair of recovery shots that would make even Bubba Watson blush.

The first came on No. 10, when he hit is drive so far left that the tee box signage on No. 11 was in his way. After taking a free drop, Lowry lashed out a high, slicing approach from 101 yards that carved around a tree and somehow nestled within four feet for an easy birdie that stretched his lead to two shots.

That proved to be his first turn of fortune, with more yet to come.

“I was quite lucky because I got a drop, the drop actually took me back onto a little bit of an upslope, which meant I could get the ball in the air quicker,” he said. “I was just trying to get up around the green and make a 4.”

Lowry pulled off another impressive escape on the par-4 14th, where a drive into a fairway bunker caused him to lay up. His wedge approach from 62 yards came up well short, but he holed a 17-foot putt to keep a clean scorecard and maintain a two-shot cushion.

“I think that’s probably the putt that won me the tournament in the end,” he said.

While the approach to No. 10 deserves consideration for shot of the year, his approach to No. 18 will go down in Firestone lore. Boxed in by trees along the left side and nursing a one-shot lead, Lowry gashed a wedge that flew through too many tree branches to count.

Hoping to simply get it up near the green, Lowry pumped his fist in the air when the ball landed on the green and rolled to within 12 feet, setting up a closing birdie.

Don’t mess with the luck of the Irish.

“It was sitting down in a hole. It was almost like someone had stood on it, but it was where the crowd was walking,” he explained. “I pulled it a bit too low, and went into the tree. The rest is history.”

Lowry broke onto the scene in 2009 when he won the Irish Open as an amateur, and has been a solid player on the European Tour in recent years. With this victory, he has now unlocked a PGA Tour membership through 2018 and the opportunity to comprise a schedule that features the best events on both circuits.

Graeme McDowell finished three groups ahead of Lowry, but the Ulsterman stuck around to watch Lowry roll in his final putt and congratulate his friend.

“I’ve known he was very good, very talented for several years now,” McDowell said. “This golf course personifies what he’s good at. He’s an extremely great driver of the ball, very long and very straight, and his short game is one of his outstanding qualities. He’s one of the best chippers of the ball that I know.”

Lowry had played in a handful of WGC events since 2009, notably the 2013 Match Play when he ousted another friend, Rory McIlroy, in the opening round. But his game fell on hard times shortly thereafter, and he dropped to No. 142 in the world last May.

The turnaround, Lowry insisted, came from a total overhaul of his game.

“I’m probably 20 yards longer than I was. My irons are more consistent, my wedge play is better,” he said. “All around, I’m probably a better player and more mature player as well, which is a big thing.”

Flashing a cheeky grin with his newly-acquired trophy sitting next to him, Lowry admitted the full weight of his victory had yet to sink in. His hope, though, is that this is only the beginning.

“I feel like I’ve been playing good golf for the last couple of years,” he said. “I was never too far away. So yeah, I think this is going to give me the confidence hopefully to drive on now and win more events, and hopefully the floodgates will open.”