For the second straight day, a man from the island stole the show at Royal Portrush and the 2019 Open Championship.
On Friday, it was Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy trying to run down the cut line and get to the weekend. He shot 65 but failed. On Saturday, even more was at stake. Irishman Shane Lowry, playing in the final pairing with J.B. Holmes, was the only true hope remaining from one of the two countries that make up this island in the North Atlantic.
So what did he do? Oh, he just went out and shot a moment-of-the-week 63 to lead Tommy Fleetwood by four going into Sunday’s finale.
Nothing about the way Lowry finished on Friday — or the way he started on Saturday — screamed that the best round at Portrush (by two strokes!) was in play. He chunked a wedge into No. 18 on Friday to get in the house at 8 under, tied for the lead with Holmes. And his tee shot on No. 1 on Saturday didn’t seem a ton better.
But boy, the rest of the day was absolute magic.
Lowry went out in 3-under 33 to separate himself from the pack a bit. Then he raced it across the finish line. Two birdies in his first three on the back led to an outrageous three-hole stretch near the end. The closing stretch at Portrush is not for those weak of will or heart. Three of the seven toughest holes on the course come on the final four. Lowry blitzed them.
A three at the 15th led into just the second birdie of the day at the 17th. Lowry may have blacked out somewhere in there because he torched his drive at No. 17, which led to another up-and-down birdie. Another missile at No. 18, and he nearly bagged the putt for a 62! He settled for 63 and maybe the best major round of the year.
Again, this is a course that has seen the following scores this week.
- 63: 1
- 64: 0
- 65: 5
- 66: 4
- 67: 14
And the guy who shot the 63 was playing in the final game on a Saturday! Imagine being Fleetwood, shooting 66 from the second-to-last pairing and watching your deficit go from one stroke to four going into Sunday. Lowry’s 16-under 197 total is the lowest after 54 holes in the 148-year history of this tournament and tied for the lowest major championship round … ever.
Lowry, not one to turn down a moment or a party, drank the scenes in throughout the day. His grin after birdies, big breaks, flushed recovery shots and hitting 17-of-18 greens said he knew something unusual was going down. The roars from a country thirsty for this championship after a 68-year hiatus were loud for everyone, but they were different for Lowry. He may not be specifically from this country, but he’s no doubt an adopted son.
“My mind is a bit fuzzy at the moment,” Lowry told Golf Channel. “I just had an incredible day on the golf course. I’m looking forward to sitting down later on and just reflecting on it. I felt like my game was in good shape all day. … I’m very excited for tomorrow. Four ahead with an Open Championship [on the line] in Ireland? I don’t know what to say.”
What else is there to say?
Now comes the hardest part, backing the whole thing up. Lowry leads by four over Fleetwood, six over Holmes and seven over Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose. We’ve been here before with him, too. He also led by four at the 2016 U.S. Open after 54 holes. He lost by three.
This one feels a bit different though. Oakmont felt like he was holding it together, simply not making mistakes. Saturday felt like he was aggressively slipping a few fingers around the Claret Jug.
The 16th told me everything I need to know. The nasty, long par-3 16th yielded but one birdie on the day, to Jon Rahm a few hours earlier than when Lowry arrived. The shot Lowry hit to that pin from that distance said either, “I am unconscious and don’t know what I’m doing,” or, “I’m ready to win my first major.”
Opens are always volatile, though. Weather, nerves, gorse and probably a handful of things we haven’t even thought of can upend the popular narrative. Weather is supposed to be so raucous on Sunday that the R&A — not normally an organization known for making things easy on players! — is bumping tee times up a few hours. Anything can still happen.
If what happens in the final round is remotely close to what happened on Saturday, this event will have as popular a champion as it could have hoped to see. For the course that hasn’t seen an Open in seven decades to get a winner who was born just 276 kilometers away? It seems too good to be true.
His history on this island is rich, too.
Lowry, in maybe his finest hour as a golfer, famously won the 2009 Irish Open at County Louth as an amateur. The celebration that ensued was off-the-charts chaos. It was an outrageous time for somebody who had yet to turn pro, and because everything is more special when you’re young and innocent, there are few things Lowry could even possibly achieve in his career that would match that.
“It was a week that changed my life,” he said recently.
I can think of one another one that would do the same.