PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Eventually, Shane Lowry ended up here, in The Open Clubhouse. It was more than an hour after his unifying victory at Royal Portrush, and by the time Lowry arrived at this makeshift lounge, about a hundred friends, family and various VIP guests were posted up on plush cube seats, tipping back Heinekens, picking at lemony pastries and savoring a title by one of the island’s homegrown heroes.
Still flushed from victory, the claret jug in his left hand, Lowry was whisked through his own victory party. “Save some for me,” he laughed, pointing at one of the lads who was double-fisting beers.
The lively scene was a stark contrast to how Lowry’s Sunday had started, down the road at the Bushmills Inn. Sleeping on a four-shot lead, with the weight of the Emerald Isle upon him, Lowry tossed and turned for much of the night before rising at 6:30 a.m. He texted his caddie, Brian “Bo” Martin – “At least I got a good night’s sleep,” he wrote, facetiously – and fired off another message to Neil Manchip, his longtime swing coach and psychologist. He wanted to meet, now.
And so a few hours before the round that would forever change his life, Lowry, 32, walked along the river with Manchip, revealing his darkest fears. “I was so scared about messing the lead up,” he said.
That’s what he’d done three years ago at Oakmont. Before the 2016 U.S. Open devolved into chaos, it was Lowry who had staked himself to a four-shot lead through 54 holes. That afternoon he shrunk in the moment and, even more dishearteningly, limped into the clubhouse with three late bogeys. He wound up second, after a closing 76. “I’d give anything to be standing on the 14th fairway again,” he said.
The former prodigy had proven his big-game chops, taking a WGC title in 2015, but earlier this year he’d again showed his vulnerability. In January, he built another four-shot cushion, this time in Abu Dhabi, but by the time he stood on the 12th tee, he trailed by three. He needed a birdie on the 72nd hole just to eke out the title.
And so there was reason for apprehension when he arrived at Royal Portrush on Sunday. In benign conditions a day earlier, Lowry had shot a sizzling 8-under 63, being carried home by a frenzied crowd that had adopted the Irishman as one of its own. That was no small feat, of course. It’d been 68 years since The Open was last held in Portrush, and that lapse of time had nothing to do with the quality of the spectacular Dunluce Links. Instead, it reflected the R&A’s uneasiness in bringing golf’s oldest championship into this divided country, following decades of sectarian violence. Lowry grew up in the town of Clara, County Offaly, about three hours from the border, but resounding cheers followed him throughout the course, sending a powerful message that a golfer from the Republic could be universally celebrated. Said Graeme McDowell, “They treated Shane like one of their own. There is no border when it comes to Ireland.”
Against that backdrop the first tee was fraught with tension, as Lowry nervously awaited the start of Game 37. On the practice putting green, Manchip offered some final instructions. “We talked about all the possible scenarios that could happen,” Manchip said, “but the biggest thing was this: Just play the next shot as well as you can.”
At 1:42 p.m., Lowry set off up the stairs and through the grandstand tunnel, walking under the emblem of the claret jug and a sign that read “This is the one,” as if he needed any reminder. He breathed deeply waiting for his turn to play away, the tri-colored flag of the Republic fluttering in the wind behind him, and then hit a rope hook that barely went head-high. He settled himself enough to drain an 8-footer for bogey.
That Lowry could even contend for The Open seemed unimaginable a year ago. After carding a miserable opening round at Carnoustie, Lowry sobbed in the parking lot. “Golf wasn’t my friend at the time,” he said. Stressed out, he missed his fourth consecutive cut in his favorite tournament, his world ranking plummeted, and his game remained in disarray. He sacked his caddie of nine years, Dermot Byrne, and a fresh voice didn’t stop him from losing his PGA Tour card.
Linking up with Martin, Lowry said, “gave me a new lease on life,” but so too did a return to his roots on the European Tour, where a decade ago Lowry had launched his star, as the jolly 22-year-old amateur who won the Irish Open. “This is a game of confidence,” McDowell said, “and when you’re not playing well, you can get the stuffing knocked out of you. He came back and remembered who he was again. That’s the best thing that ever happened to him – it just gave him that little kick you need to refocus and re-motivate and get himself back to where he needs to be.”
The back-nine recovery in Abu Dhabi was Lowry’s first title in nearly three years, and he posted three more top-10s this season on Tour (including at the PGA) to boost his world ranking back inside the top 40.
“The golf he’s been playing, it’s been flawless, really,” Martin said. “He doesn’t have to prove to anybody that he’s a good player. But he had to prove it to himself, genuinely.”
There’d be no greater challenge than what he encountered on the back nine Sunday. Conditions were deteriorating, and even if the apocalyptic weather never blew through Portrush as anticipated, temperatures never crept above 60 degrees, an annoying rain spit at players most of the day and the 30-mph gusts were enough to make the QUIET PLEASE signs whistle and the TV camera covers flap. And yet, Lowry seemed unbothered. Layered in only a black polo and light rain vest, he resembled a bare-sleeved offensive lineman playing a January game at Lambeau. “I’m not sure I was able to feel anything out there I was so worked up,” he said.
In the worst weather all week, Lowry made two bogeys coming home, but so did everyone else, or worse. He never led by fewer than four on the back nine, allowing him to finally soak in the moment on 17. “Look around,” he told Martin, “because we may never get to experience something like this again.”
The 72nd hole turned into a celebration of European golf. As Lowry made his way up the fairway, fans serenaded him with cheers of “Ole, Ole, Ole!” Preparing to play his approach into the 18th, he spied his wife, Wendy, and 2-year-old daughter, Iris, at the back of the green and began to tear up. Martin patted him on the back and leaned in close. “Get ahold of yourself,” he said. “You’ve still got to hit a shot.”
Lowry played safely into the green, then nearly was stampeded by the golf-mad fans who’d overwhelmed the blue-jacketed marshals and flooded the 18th hole to cheer their favorite son.
“Watching that, I just felt immense satisfaction,” Manchip said, “knowing that he’d achieved in Ireland what he was always capable of doing.”
More than an hour expired before Lowry floated down the walkway and through the doors of The Open Clubhouse. He was ushered upstairs, into the players’ lounge, for some quality time with his family and then a toast with the R&A. There were countless media requests: The TV car wash, the news conference with the press, another series of 1-on-1s here with the tournament broadcast partners. Lowry, it seemed, was the only one who didn’t partake in the revelry, so on his way to the BBC booth, he grabbed a fresh pint of Guinness and took a swig, the foam sticking to his upper lip. “More of that soon,” he promised.
When he finally left Royal Portrush Golf Club, it was 8:58 p.m. The Clubhouse had already run out of beer. A cold, steady rain was falling. A few spectators were stumbling toward the exit.
Carrying Iris in his left arm, with the claret jug being wheeled out in a hard-shelled protective case behind him, Lowry answered questions in one final interview, saying what he’d already said more than a dozen times: That the entire week was a dream.
He climbed into the back seat of an SUV, peeled out onto Bushmills Road behind a police escort and unleashed a Woooohoooo! that cut through the quiet night.
A member of his inner circle was asked what was in store for the rest of the evening. “We’re driving down to Dublin,” he said, “and we’re going to f---ing party.”