Ma­jor push brings out Lowry’s best

Of­faly man leads Irish chal­lenge at PGA as McIl­roy strug­gles to make up lost ground

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GOLF / ATHLETICS / RUGBY - DER­MOT GILLEECE

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.

Photo: Stu­art Franklin

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.

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