Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship
The 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush became the tale of two Irishman after Rory McIlroy’s fairytale homecoming to Northern Ireland turned into a horror story and Shane Lowry, born south of the border, took up the mantle and lifted the Claret Jug.
McIlroy’s disastrous opening round 79, including an eight on the first hole, saw him eventually miss the cut, agonisingly, by one stroke despite a valiant second round 65. In contrast, Lowry, elevated by huge support from the galleries into what he called “an out-of-body experience”, finished on 15-under par, six shots ahead of England‘s Tommy Fleetwood.
The huge expectations placed on McIlroy wherever he plays came into sharper focus in front of his home fans, and he admitted the pressure got to him on the first tee. “My hand, with the ball and tee in it, started shaking,” he said. “I was thinking, this is a little different.”
The boisterous Irish crowd didn’t seem to faze 32-year-old Lowry, whose world ranking has now risen to a career-high 16. “It was incredible right from the 1st hole,” he said. “The crowd didn’t seem that big around the 3rd green but the roar when I holed my putt was unbelievable. You can’t but smile, you can’t but laugh. There’s no point trying to shy away from it.”
As Lowry won his first major, McIlroy reflected on a missed opportunity to add a fifth. After saying in 2016 that “not everyone is driven by nationalism and patriotism” about his non-participation at the Rio Olympics, he admitted: “I was overwhelmed by the support that I got. I guess at the end of the day I didn’t think I meant as much to them, and I realised that they mean more to me than I thought they did.”
He added that his approach going into the tournament could have been different. “I tried to downplay the majors this year, tried to treat them like every other event, and I’ve realised they’re not,” he said. “I tried a sort of different strategy this year, it didn’t quite work for me.”
The 30-year-old paid tribute to Lowry, saying: “How he handled everything over the weekend, emotions, nerves and conditions, tells you everything I’ve gotten to know about him.”
For once, it was Lowry who had stolen the limelight. The pair played junior golf together, with McIlroy often the star attraction. His absence from a 2005 Irish Boys’ squad opened up a place for Lowry, who impressed selectors enough to become a permanent fixture.
They were teammates when Ireland won the 2007 European Amateur Team Championship in Ayrshire, just days before an 18-year-old McIlroy made his Open debut at Carnoustie. Though he never usurped McIlroy as top dog, Lowry did not take long to prove his own credentials. Aged just 22 he won the 2009 Irish Open while still an amateur, before claiming the Portugal Open in 2012, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in 2015 and the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship earlier this season.
While his career has hit new heights, McIlroy’s is in danger of stalling. The current world number three hasn’t won a major since the 2014 PGA. Despite two victories this year, including the Players Championship, he has faced accusations that he rarely produces his best golf when he needs it most, on Sundays. Last weekend a final day 71, nine shots worse than his score on Saturday, saw him finish fourth at the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational after going into the final day a shot ahead of eventual winner Brooks Koepka.
McIlroy will be on Europe’s Ryder Cup team next year at Whistling Straits, with Lowry now a near certainty to join him following his Open victory. Recalling their amateur days playing together, the duo will also team up in Ireland colours at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo after McIlroy decided to play and represent Ireland rather than Team GB. This time Lowry can expect something closer to equal billing.