The last man standing in thick sheets of rain, Shane Lowry raised his arms towards the skies which had wreaked such biblical carnage all afternoon and embraced the wall of sound which echoed from the 18th green at Royal Portrush across all corners of Ireland.
After ruthlessly tearing through the Saturday sunshine to take a four-shot lead into the final round of The Open, the 32-year-old withstood tidal weather as his challengers washed away on Sunday to become the first Irishman to win the championship on home soil by an emphatic six-shots.
But on a raw, misty grey morning in County Antrim, the day had worn an ominous feel for Lowry, who had cratered with a lead of the same margin at the US Open three years ago. That the burly 32-year-old, born 130 miles south in Mullingar, had even emerged as the frontrunner four days after soul-searching in the Bushmills Inn with his swing coach contained more than a speck of Irish luck.
And yet, after two frostbitten birdieless hours, Lowry’s putt and cathartic punch through the fog on the 16th cleared the road to victory. By the time he reached the final fairway, his caddie’s arm slung over his shoulder, beating his chest to a rhythm of rain-soaked ‘Olés’, the rapture had already begun. For those who flooded over the border to be here yesterday, the celebrations will continue long into the night from here to Dublin. A victory at the first Open in Portrush for 68 years that will, no matter how briefly, transcend sport across the island.
“It was just incredible to walk down 18,” Lowry said giddily in his champion’s press conference. “The crowd is going wild. Singing. I just couldn’t believe it was happening to me. It’s an incredible feeling sitting here with the trophy in front of me. Look at the names on it. It’s not going to sink in for a couple of days.”
It was a fantastic display of resilience from Lowry, who arrived on the first tee in the eye of the late afternoon storm, cheeks burned bright red by the wind and understandably stricken with nerves. His tee-shot scythed low and left, saved only a few yards from the boundary rope, and by the time he’d hacked himself free of the greenside bunker, he was staring down the barrel of a disastrous double-bogey start.
The one putt which followed was the distillation of a battle won over the following five hours. As Lowry’s ball rattled through the bow of the green and into the back of the hole, Fleetwood’s birdie chance drooped low. A potential three-shot swing was reduced to just one, and the gap would never close any tighter. “I hit a ropy tee shot on the first,” he said. “Then you’re standing on the first green, Tommy has a great chance of birdie and I’m putting for bogey from eight-feet. He misses, I make. That settled me an awful lot.”
Starting some seven shots behind, an off-colour Brooks Koepka saw his hopes drowned almost immediately by a streak of bogeys. Rickie Fowler recovered from a double-bogey start to mount something of a charge while Danny Willett stayed true to his rehabilitated vein of form. But as the droplets turned to downpour and the winds turned to gales, everything ceased to be of relevance beyond the final group.
Three birdies in four holes hauled Lowry to 18-under-par – one shy of Tiger Woods’ record-winning Open Championship score – cueing the crowd to launch into a huddled Poznan behind the seventh green, sidling against one another in transparent blue bin-bags. Both players dropped shots on the eighth, while Lowry slipped another on the sodden ninth as the field shifted backwards in unity.
By that point it was almost impossible to overstate the impact the weather was wreaking on this final round. The rain fell in puddles, the sky groaned angrily and all around the course the tents and marquees rattled like beaten wind-chimes. The final 10 groups, drenched beneath their failing umbrellas, posted a collective 31-over-par at the turn.
Arrested by a far-flung hook, Fleetwood’s quest to end a 27-year English drought of the Claret Jug rarely came within eyeshot. A bogey at the 10th saw the chasm return to six-shots and, although he’d manage to close it to four again, a shanked bunker shot at the 14th brought down the curtain on his challenge.
When Lowry’s birdie putt fell on the 16th, the celebrations which had bubbled nervously day-long finally erupted. And, aside from the deathly silence that preceded Lowry’s final putt, there’s no telling when they will stop.
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