Major push brings out Lowry’s best
Offaly man leads Irish challenge at PGA as McIlroy struggles to make up lost ground
SHANE LOWRY built on the quiet revival of recent weeks to deliver serious sparkle with a second-round 64 in the 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive CC yesterday. It left him in a share of fifth place at the half-way stage, three strokes off Gary Woodland’s lead of 10-under, after play had been suspended because of an electric storm on Friday afternoon.
Rory McIlroy also seemed to welcome a potentially disruptive break. When play resumed at 7.0am (local time) yesterday, he had three birdies in the remaining 11 holes of his second round for an encouraging 67, before slipping further behind with a one over par third round of 71.
There was no joy either for the two other Irish challengers. Paul Dunne carded a second successive 73 to miss the cut by six strokes but Pádraig Harrington had the frustration of being only a stroke from survival, due largely to a double-bogey six, four holes from home.
Having started on the 10th on Friday, Harrington was on the 18th when play was suspended. He then birdied it and the short third to be one under for the championship, only to give both shots back at the tree-lined, 471-yard fifth, one of the most difficult holes on the course.
Lowry’s performance followed on from a 12th-place finish in the Canadian Open and tied 15 th in last weekend’s Barracuda, yet it still surpassed expectations. Built on solid driving — he hit 22 of 28 fairways — and brilliant scrambling, it comprised halves of 32 and included birdies at three of yesterday’s 10 holes.
In a challenge he described as “quintessential target golf”, McIlroy was slow to capitalise. Though predictably impressive off the tee, there was a crushing familiarity about the poor quality of Friday’s approach play, most notably a 103-yard wedge to the seventh, which he pushed into a greenside bunker.
I remember Christy O’Connor expressing disappointment if he didn’t get the ball to within six feet of the hole with a wedge in his hand. To heighten our puzzlement, McIlroy then went on to hole a 12-footer for par after an indifferent recovery from sand.
He looked more comfortable yesterday morning, however, carding three birdies while being bogey-free. Number one in driving distance over the opening rounds, he had a best effort of 359 yards on Friday and averaged 329.7. Against this, however, he was tied 73rd in putting.
Meanwhile, Jordan Spieth had completed a second-round 66 before Friday’s storm, so giving himself an outside chance of completing the career Grand Slam. “I need something special to happen over the weekend,” said the player who is without a win in 19 starts.
There hasn’t been much wrong with his short-game at Bellerive, where he has saved par from bunkers four times out of four. Still, Spieth has admitted spending the last two months working on “the wrong thing”, an adjustment essentially to do with his set-up. “It pushed me further away from what I should have been doing,” he said.
All of which was related to a coveted prize which he didn’t even threaten to accomplish 12 months ago when he was tied 28th behind Justin Thomas at Quail Hollow. “I was probably a little more anxious last year,” he said. “I think going in, there was a big focus on it, given it was right after winning the Open Championship.”
Two distinguished predecessors, who famously travelled the same road without success, were Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson. Palmer had a few near-misses, but Watson’s only realistic chance occurred relatively early in his career, in 1978, when he lost in sudden-death to John Mahaffey at Oakmont.
His failure seems especially odd, given that he conquered almost every conceivable type of shot-making challenge when winning five Open Championships. Perhaps the PGA came too late in the season for Watson, though Palmer offered no such excuse while reflecting on three runner-up finishes, two of which occurred in 1964 and 1970.
“Without the final jewel of the PGA in my crown, my success on the golf course is somewhat incomplete,” he acknowledged late in his career. “For years, I’ve held in reserve a spot for a PGA medal in a display case that holds awards from my Major tournament victories.”
As it happens, his other chance of a breakthrough occurred 50 years ago. That was in 1968, the 50th staging of the PGA which became notable for the victory of Julius Boros who, at 48, became and remains the oldest winner of any Major championship.
Playing the 72nd hole, Palmer was a stroke off the lead held by Boros in the group behind. That was when he hooked his drive into rough terrain near TV cables. Typically cavalier, he opted for a high-risk recovery. “A fairway wood from the deep rough is one of the toughest shots in the game,” he reflected. “But the way I figured it, I might never get this close to the prize that had eluded me most, so I went for it.”
He went on: “I hit what was probably the finest wood shot of my career. The ball landed on the green and checked up eight feet above the cup. If I made that short putt, I would be tied with Boros who was then standing on the tee. The ball went straight at the hole but curled off and rolled several inches past.
“I slumped over in despair. Boros made it an interesting finish, though, dramatic to the bittersweet end. Unable to reach the green in two, he made a superb pitch to get up and down in two to win the championship. I finished in second place, tied with Bob Charles. A bridesmaid once again, I mentally kicked myself for having missed that putt.”
Once more, second place was Palmer’s lot two years later, this time behind Dave Stockton at Southern Hills where, incidentally, he eventually bade farewell to the PGA in 1994. “I played poorly and missed the cut, to nobody’s surprise, but I thanked the organisation from the bottom of my heart for being such an important part of my life,” he said.
Shane Lowry tees off on the second hole during yesterday’s continuation of the weather-delayed second round of the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club.