ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — This one would have really hurt. Maybe not quite as much as it did when he led the 2016 U.S Open at Oakmont by four shots after three rounds only to finish T-2 behind Dustin Johnson. But for Shane Lowry, losing again from a position of authority with 18-holes to play -- this time a three-shot advantage -- the pain would have been considerable.
Would have been.
Thankfully for the 31-year old Irishman, it wasn’t. All turned out well. Almost exactly 31 months on from June 2016, Lowry exorcised at least some of his demons. At the end of a topsy-turvy final round in which he went from three ahead to four behind, then back to one ahead again, the former Irish Open champion claimed the Abu Dhabi Championship and a cheque for $1,166,660 by the narrowest of margins from South African Richard Sterne. He also will return to the top 50 in the World Ranking.
“I completely thought I was gone, to be honest,” he said in the immediate aftermath of his fifth European Tour victory. “I didn’t think I had that in me. The putts I holed, the shots I made. All sorts of things went through my head. In the middle of the night I was envisaging this little girl (two-year-old Iris) running around at Augusta in a white boiler suit, caddieing in the par three. All sorts of things go through your mind in this mad game. It’s been a tough few years on the course.”
The numbers. Lowry’s closing 71 took him to 18-under par for a week in which he made a remarkable 11 birdies on the four par-3s at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Sterne’s 69 was good enough for second place, with a fast-finishing Joost Luiten -- his 65 was the best of the final day -- third, two shots further back.
What seemed to be the winning thrust came early in what was soon confirmed as a two-horse race. As Lowry stumbled to the turn in a ragged 37, Sterne was out in 31, courtesy of six birdies and a lone bogey. That three-shot advantage was soon four, when Lowry dropped another shot at the par-4 11th. Thereafter, however, things started moving in the other direction. Two birdies from the pursuer and a brace of bogeys from the leader -- only his third and fourth of the week -- saw the pair level by the penultimate tee.
Still all-square with only the par-5 18th to play, it was Sterne who blinked, his approach missing wildly to the right. After Lowry found the distant green, the diminutive South African failed to get up-and-down to match the Irishman’s birdie.
The runner-up is deserving of some sympathy. What would have been the 37-year old’s seventh win on the European Tour -- but his first since 2013 -- would also have broken a long stretch of frustration low-lighted by nagging injuries that caused him to miss almost all of the 2010, 2011 and 2015 campaigns.
Back to the winner though. Commendably, Lowry has always spoken with a commendable realism about his position in the world of golf.
“I don’t think I’m at the level where I’m out there just to win majors,” he says. “I want to win tournaments. It’s hard to win on the PGA Tour. It’s hard to win in Europe. Yes, Rory (McIlroy) and some of the other lads can set themselves up for majors every year. But I’m not one of those. I don’t think you can plan to peak in certain weeks. I just don’t. If you do try to peak for a certain event you are putting too much pressure on yourself. It’s just about playing well at the right time. And you can’t really plan that.”
Elsewhere, and for all that he was never really in contention for what would have been a thirteenth European Tour victory, Ian Poulter’s T-6 finish was perhaps the most remarkable performance of the week. It could and should have been better too, but for a somewhat disastrous triple-bogey seven at the 16th in the final round. Not until 8 p.m. on the eve of the event -- which started on Wednesday because of a date-clash with the Asian Cup of soccer- - did the 43-year old Englishman arrive in Abu Dhabi from Hawaii. In all, his journey took 34-hours via LA and Dubai.
“I set off at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday,” said Poulter. “The time difference between there and AD is 14 hours. I got to Los Angeles at 6:30 a.m. Monday, then waited nine hours to get a 16-hour flight to Dubai. I made it to my hotel at 10:15, went straight to bed and slept until 6 a.m.. Which is never good when you have a noon tee-time. The last five holes in the first round were a struggle. I really didn’t feel too great. It was like I’d had a few pints.”
A little further down the leader board, the unofficial race for leading American was won by world No. 2 Brooks Koepka. Without ever really threatening to win, the U.S. Open champion finished on 11-under par. That was good enough for a tie for ninth place, two shots ahead of Dustin Johnson, who closed with a 67 that was bettered only by Oosthuizen’s 66 and Luiten’s 65.
Even further into the pack, two-time defending champion, Tommy Fleetwood, endured a frustrating week in what was his first competitive appearance of the new year. One of the few bright spots was the 12-foot putt he made for birdie on the 18th green in the second round. Had it missed, Fleetwood would not have been around for the final 36-holes.
“It was a typical ‘first week back’ really,” said the former European No. 1, who celebrated his 28th birthday with a final round of 70. “There are things I need to do better. I was happy I made the cut. Two more days playing the course was important. I saw what I need to work on. Golf is not easy and this course is not easy. But I was only a few putts away from finishing maybe top-15. And that would have been a good week.”
Indeed, but only Shane Lowry came away from this one saying that with any real conviction.