Shane Lowry was standing on the 16th at Portrush, looking down the fearsome length of this intimidating par-three with a club in his hand and a deadpan look on his face.
He led The Open by six shots. Somewhere in the distance, over those dunes and those stands and those vast throngs of people, he could see the winning line.
Amid the wildly fluttering flags of all the competing nations, the R&A may as well have added another – a white one of surrender on behalf of every other player in the field. They all tried to go at him, but none succeeded. Lowry endured. In truth, he never looked like doing anything else.
Everybody watching him was cold and wet. Everybody had been caught in the tempest out on the seventh and eighth holes when the rain lashed and the wind whipped. Long before the end, brains were beginning to turn to mush.
During the peak of the foulest weather, one Irish voice was heard to say that if there was a wheelie bin in sight, he’d jump in and close the lid. “Like Oscar from Sesame Street,” laughed his pal. “Oscar lived in a rubbish bin not a wheelie bin,” said his mate. “Strictly speaking, he lived in a ‘trash can’,” said a third man.
Things were getting a bit surreal out there. Nothing quite so surreal as the heroics of the guy on the tee close by, of course. Nothing could come close to that.
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The 16th is infamous around here. It’s called Calamity Corner for a reason. Lowry, though, was in a place where nothing could hurt him. He was kicking for home and preparing for victory. Still a steely focus, still in his bubble. It’s impossible to know if Lowry heard it, but on his way to the 16th tee a Northern Irishman shouted out at him: “You’re doing us proud, Shane.” Us.
Through the sunshine of Saturday and the brutality of Sunday, Lowry was serenaded. He wasn’t south or north, he wasn’t Catholic or Protestant, he was Irish. He was their guy. He was the one they transferred all their passion and all their love to when Rory McIlroy exited on Friday.
Through Lowry, they united. And it was powerful. Back in the worst days of The Troubles, the people trying to build bridges were always horribly undermined by those trying to blow them up. The badness always got more projection than the goodness.
Here, there was nothing but positive energy and mutual understanding of a common cause. This was a day of days for Lowry, but also for Portrush and for Northern Ireland. The beauty of the place and the kindness of its people was always there, but it was laid out in front of the golfing world this week.
Lowry saw it clearer than most – and it meant a lot to him. It probably took him by surprise in the beginning. It probably stunned him, if truth to be told. His golf was not the only glorious thing on display. He spoke about that. His words of appreciation for the backing he got were plentiful and heartfelt.
As he made his way towards the most stunning finale, the scenes became extraordinary. Up by the 16th green, the masses of supporters ran and bumped and fell in pursuit of him. They helped each other up off the floor. They laughed and hugged. They were on their way to a party. Lowry had become the Pied Piper of Portrush.
In trying to keep the people at bay, the marshals became far more tense than the man at the centre of the mayhem. Before he putted on that 16th green, Lowry looked away to his left to a commotion around the scoreboard. People had climbed on top to catch a glimpse of him. Such was the racket, his playing partner Tommy Fleetwood had to call for quiet.
The accents were different, but the message was the same. ‘Go on, Shane!’ Or, to put it how so many put it coming down the stretch, ‘Go on ya boy ya!’ When Lowry holed out for par on 16, his dad, Brendan, puffed out his cheeks in some joyous amalgam of relief and pride.
Brendan Lowry was a corner-forward on the All Ireland winning Offaly team of 1982. A tough wee man who punched above his weight. Even now, as he made his way to the 17th to the accompanying shouts of, ‘Good man yerself, Brendan Lowry’, he looked an individual you wouldn’t want to cross. That toughness would soon melt. No amount of steel can stand up to the heat of what happened coming down 18.
Lowry played his approach and finally we saw emotion. In a week that provided so many iconic images of such a gorgeous golf course, nothing could top the warmth of the embrace between Lowry and his caddie, Brian ‘Bo’ Martin, before they walked to the final green.
The golfer from County Offaly in the Republic of Ireland, the caddie from County Down in Northern Ireland. There were no borders here, just a friendship and a famous victory. A happy stampede happened then. The marshals struggled to pull a thick rope across the fairway to hold everybody back. Just as well our friend never found that wheelie bin. He wouldn’t have wanted to miss this.
In acclamation, Portrush burst into song. ‘Ole, Ole’ followed by the ‘Fields of Athenry’. This wasn’t just a golfing Mecca now. It was the Kingspan Stadium when the Ulster rugby team are flying. It was Croke Park on All Ireland final day. It was a slice of everything – and it was special.
Lowry said later that it was one of the most amazing weeks of his life and that he will never forget it. The vast army of fans who roared his name over the weekend, in good conditions and bad, will not forget it either. Portrush, Northern Ireland, all of Ireland waited 68 years to host The Open. They’ll not be kept waiting that long ever again.