Royal Portrush Staged Passionate Open for the Ages
IN THE days, weeks and months ahead most of the population of the island of Ireland will claim to have been there when Shane Lowry made his triumphant walk up the 18th fairway at Royal Portrush to win The Open Championship. They will do so out of a sense of pride after staging what was surely the most passionate major golf tournament the world has ever seen.
Official attendance figures tell us that 237,000 souls packed themselves into the course during the championship. But there could have been more This was an Open like no other and the efforts of the Irish public and players such as Lowry, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy must ensure that it returns to Northern Ireland soon. It is unfathomable that they had to wait 68 years. And while we are at it, isn’t about time that the R&A started to take a serious look at bringing their tournament to Wales?
The Irish public embrace their sport like no other nation on earth. They reduced McDowell and Clarke to tears with the strength of their feelings for those two men. They very nearly inspired McIlroy to make the cut after his shocking first round of 79. And they were worth three or four shots a round to Lowry. The 32-year-old walked on air for almost all of his 72 holes. Sure, he had to play the shots but whenever he threatened to wobble, they were there to lift him, to cajole him, to cheer him on.
He has already paid tribute to the part they played in his triumph. What a tournament this was. Of course, Royal Portrush itself was the star of the show. For the best part of three days it was relatively benign - not that the likes of Tiger Woods would agree with that as he battled through the wind and rain on day one. It was only really during the final round that it decided to bare its teeth, and many of the world’s leading golfers were found wanting. JB Holmes, the 36-hole leader, required a mind-boggling 87 shots to negotiate it, Justin Rose was made to look like a weekend golfer. One by one the challengers fell by the wayside, unable to cope with the wind.
Of the leading groups, only Tony Finau was able to match par. Lowry negotiated the links in 72 blows. With all that pressure on his shoulders, with the knowledge that three years ago he had taken a four-shot lead into the final round of the US Open and had blown it. When he found the rough with his opening drive and then put his second into a bunker, still 50 yards from the green, many knowing sages wondered if it was going to happen again. His bunker shot was no better than average. But here’s the thing. He holed the putt for a bogey and, at that moment, he knew, and everything watching knew, that this was going to be his day.
He played the following 17 holes in level par and nobody ever got closer to him than three shots. He put on a masterclass, and it left you wondering quite why it has taken him so long to win his first major. This, after all, is the man who won the Irish Open as an amateur.
McIlroy missed the cut. Woods missed the cut. Was it any less of an Open for not having them around for 72 holes?
If you have a heart in your body then you can’t have felt anything other than the greatest sympathy for McIlroy. In his worst nightmares it would never have entered his head that he would return to his homeland and begin his much-awaited challenge with an eight. And just when it looked like he had given himself a chance of salvaging something, there was yet another wayward drive at the 18th that cost him another three shots. He came off the course and, like the champion he is, faced the press and admitted that he felt like punching himself. He was gone, like a boxer who has been floored with a crushing right hook but somehow got back off the floor, the referee considering stepping in to stop the fight.
But then he came back on Friday with nothing to lose. And boy did he thrill us. He had cleared his head, He had pushed the referee to one side and told him he was fine to fight on. And he did, right to the very end. Towering iron shots, huge drives, unlikely putts that dropped. And, for a second or two, we all thought that he just might do it. His 65 was more thrilling than the 63 Lowry shot on Saturday because it had seemed so unlikely. Had he managed to find a birdie at either of the final two holes then he would have made it to the weekend. But he came up agonisingly close.
And then there were those interviews. He told us how proud he was of his effort. And why wouldn’t he be? He told us he had loved the entire experience (trust me, he hated every single moment of that opening round) and he fought back the tears as he realised what he was going to be missing, knowing that when The Open does return to these shores, he could be past his prime.
And what of Woods? He hadn’t played a competitive round of golf since the U.S Open at Pebble Beach, due to his back and neck starting to cause him some pain. Woods believed that a rest was needed if he was going to be able to play well at Royal Portrush as he seeks Open No.4, but it seems the rest wasn't quite long enough and he comfortably missed the cut.
For many of us, the golfing highlight of 2019 will be his extraordinary victory at The Masters in April, simply because it was so unlikely, but we are going to have to accept that days and weeks like that are going to be increasingly rare for Tiger. “I'm just not moving as well as I’d like,” he said. “Unfortunately, you’ve got to be able to move, and especially under these conditions, shape the golf ball. And I didn’t do it. I didn’t shape the golf ball at all. Everything was left-to-right. And wasn’t hitting very solidly.
“I guess it’s just the way it is now. Just Father Time and some procedures I’ve had over the time. Just the way it's going to be. As I said, one of the reasons why I’m playing less tournaments this year is that I can hopefully prolong my career, and be out here for a little bit longer.”
What interested a lot of the media was Woods admitting that home life is more of a strain on his injury problems than playing golf. “If I am at home and have school pick-up and soccer practices, I’m a lot more sore than I am now. But playing at this elite level is a completely different deal. You’ve got to be spot on. These guys are too good, there are too many guys that are playing well and I’m just not one of them.”
“I’m not 24 anymore,” he said. “Life changes, life moves on. And I can’t devote, as I've told you this many times…I can’t devote the hours to practice like I used to. Standing on the range, hitting balls for four or five hours, go play 36, come back, run 4 or 5 miles and then go to the gym. Those days are gone, OK?
“I have to be realistic about my expectations,” he added, “and, hopefully, peaking at the right time. I peaked at Augusta well. And hopefully I can peak a few more times this year…I’m going to have days like this, and I’ve got to fight through it. And I fought through it. Unfortunately, I did not post a very good score.”
So yes, of course, it was sad that two of the finest players on the planet were unable to make that march down the 72nd fairway. But was it any less of an event for them not being there at the weekend? Definitely not. This was an Open for the ages.The course, the people and Shane Lowry made it so.
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