Homegrown Hero


After a shocking win in his first European Tour start, Shane Lowry is ready to make it as a pro.

The last time I saw Rory McIlroy was leaving the TPC Sawgrass parking lot Friday night, after missing the cut. I didn't recognize him at first, sitting behind the tinted windows of an SUV courtesy car, but the hair gave it away and so did the kid's next move. The 20-year-old Irishman slowed down the car, wound down the window, wished me a cheerful farewell, making it a point of saying he would see me down the road at Muirfield Village or Bethpage. With that he drove off to the airport, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and a couple days later, was playing a practice round across the links at Baltray with a 22-year-old mate of his by the name of Shane Lowry.

McIlroy and Lowry were foursomes partners on the Irish team that won the European Team Championships two years ago. McIlroy, from a town called Hollywood in Northern Ireland and Lowry, from a village in the heart of the Emerald Isle named Clara, had become proper mates from the days when they played in conditions far worse than the wet and cold of the weekend at Baltray.

This was purely Irish golf, and there was no one leaving the property as long as the burly Lowry was in contention. And so he was, down to the last where he agonizingly buried his head in hands after missing a 4-footer to win, and then through three holes of a playoff with the Englishman with the best name in golf, Robert Rock. The faces in the gallery included Lowry's father, Brendan, and his mother, Bridget, holding a ticket in her pocket that would pay out $20,000 at the betting shop. Also there, holding a bottle of champagne as Lowry putted out for the victory, was McIlroy.

The Irish are an extremely close-knit golfing society, their love of the game, their friendliness, their humor and even their thoughtfulness in answering even the simplest of questions always come shining through. Coming off the 18th green, after it appeared that Lowry gave away the tournament, McIlroy told him, "You've still got this. You are still going to win this."

And now he was there to pour a big swig of that champagne down his throat. It will remain one of the great scenes in golf this year, compared to Francis Ouimet's victory in the 1913 U.S. Open, and heralded in his home country because every Irish golf fan knew the back story of this 999-to-one shot from Esker Hills Golf Club.

Esker Hills is a Christy O'Connor Jr. course in Tullamore, a town one hour west of Dublin. Among the locals who made the commute was Donal Molloy, director of the company that owns Esker Hills, and father of Lowry's girlfriend, Deirdre. "The reaction here is nothing short of incredible, absolutely incredible, in the golf club, the general area, the whole country," Molloy said on Wednesday. "Deep in the depths of recession, it's just been brilliant to lift the air of gloom for a few days."

Molloy has seen Lowry since he joined the club eight years ago, working his way up to a plus-five handicap. "So we have a double connection," Molloy said. "What's captured everyone's imagination besides being an amateur is that he's as genuinely as nice a guy you can meet. As he progressed, he never changed a bit. There were no airs or graces about him. Obviously he has a great temperament, and he loves the crowds. He reacted very well. After all, he went there hoping to make the cut in his first event."

Lowry's father, Brendan, now a "tiler" after retiring from the phone company, was a sportsman in his own right, having played on the county team from Offaly that won the national title in football against Kerry, in 1982. The medal is in a trophy case of their home and served as a symbol until Shane topped it by winning the Waterford Crystal of his country's national championship.

In the back of the interview room, knowing his son had followed Padraig Harrington among the five countrymen who have won the Irish Open, Brendan Lowry said, "It's bigger for me, too."

Later, according to Karl MacGinty of the Independent, the elder Lowry elaborated. "Of course it is," he said. "There can be nothing greater for a father to see his son achieve something like this and Shane's uncles feel the same way, too."

Lowry arrived at County Louth in a Mitsubishi Colt, parking it in a muddy parking lot every day until he held the third-round lead. It was then that he got a courtesy car and a space on the pavement near the clubhouse. Fame or the pressure of it all didn't seem to matter until that final hole, and then he rallied and won the championship with two big shots into the par-5 18th, two-putting for birdie. Afterward, Prime Minister Brian Cowen offered the kid in the Mitsubishi Colt a ride home. The Irish journalists have been waxing about it ever since.

Getting a taste of the good life, realizing he better strike while he's hot, Lowry announced he's turning pro Thursday, listening to no voice more trusted than McIlroy's, who was saying on Saturday night, "If Shane were to win tomorrow, I'd tell him to turn pro the minute after he holed the last putt."

Now comes the hard part: Making it as a pro. Lowry does not have the physical ability of Danny Lee, the U.S. Amateur champion who won the Johnnie Walker Classic earlier this year, nor does he have the action of McIlroy. Under that rain suit is a body built by Guinness, but after shooting 62 in the second round, he held on through miserable weather and massive pressure. "Life changing," he called it.

Over the last three days, Lowry has faced a different type of pressure. While McIlroy continued to encourage him to take the money, Harrington and Walker Cup captain Colin Dalgleish urged him to stay amateur. Ultimately, the Walker Cup would have been nice, but it wouldn't have been the same without McIlroy to pal around with at Merion; plus, they may be on the same Ryder Cup team together, and if Lowry wasn't a one-tournament wonder, maybe next year, just across the Irish Sea from their mother country, in Wales.