‘In­cred­i­ble day’

Ire­land’s Lowry shoots 63 to set Open 54-hole mark, ex­tend lead to 4 strokes

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - SCOREBOARD - By Doug Fer­gu­son

PORTRUSH, North­ern Ire­land — The noise was un­like any­thing Shane Lowry had ever heard on a golf course, no sur­prise at the first Bri­tish Open in th­ese parts in 68 years and an Ir­ish­man atop the leader­board at Royal Portrush.

Lowry didn’t get rat­tled Satur­day. He only got bet­ter.

Two straight birdies around the turn to take the lead. Three straight birdies near the end to pull away. An 8-un­der 63 for his low­est round in a ma­jor. A stun­ning back nine that gave him the 54-hole record in the Bri­tish Open. A four-shot lead go­ing into the fi­nal round.

Walk­ing off the 17th tee, Lowry turned to his cad­die and said, “We might never have a day like this on the golf course again, so let’s en­joy this.”

“Hon­estly, that’s the most in­cred­i­ble day I’ve ever had on the golf course,” Lowry said. “I just can’t be­lieve what it was like.”

It can get a lot bet­ter, start­ing with his name etched on the base of that sil­ver claret jug.

Lowry wasn’t will­ing to look that far ahead, not with a fore­cast so dire the R&A moved up the start­ing times Sun­day in an ef­fort to avoid the worst of the heavy rain and 35 mph gusts in the fore­cast.

“There’s no point in say­ing to go out and en­joy my­self to­mor­row be­cause it’s go­ing to be a very stress­ful and very dif­fi­cult day,” Lowry said. “I’m go­ing to take the bad shots on the chin and I’m go­ing to take the good shots and try to cap­i­tal­ize on that. I’m just go­ing to be my­self and play my game and see where it leaves me.”

He took a big step with a 30 on the back nine to break away from the pack for a four-shot lead over Tommy Fleet­wood, who had a bo­gey-free 66 and still lost ground. J.B. Holmes, who shared the 36-hole lead with Lowry, couldn’t keep up. No one could.

Holmes had two straight bo­geys on the back nine, didn’t make as many putts as the open­ing two rounds, but oth­er­wise was solid for a 69.

“It wasn’t like it was ter­ri­ble,” Holmes said. “But when you’re play­ing with a guy mak­ing ev­ery­thing, it feels like you shot a mil­lion.”

The re­turn of golf ’s old­est cham­pi­onship to North­ern Ire­land no longer had fa­vorite son Rory McIl­roy. Lowry filled the void just fine.

He was team­mates with McIl­roy for Ir­ish golf when they won the Euro­pean Am­a­teur Cham­pi­onship in 2007. Lowry didn’t mind when all the at­ten­tion was show­ered on the trio of Ul­ster­men — McIl­roy, Graeme Mc­Dow­ell and Dar­ren Clarke — as North­ern Ire­land em­braced such a spe­cial week.

“The guys are from here. I grew up four hours away,” Lowry said. “I felt like I could come here and come un­der the radar. I’m not quite un­der the radar any­more. I didn’t feel like a for­got­ten Ir­ish­man. But hope­fully, I’m the one they’re talking about to­mor­row evening.”

Lowry was at 16-un­der 197, break­ing by one the 54-hole record set by Tom Lehman in 1996 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

Sun­day’s weather had ev­ery­one talking at the end of the day. There’s also the chance of an in­ter­nal storm brew­ing in Lowry. He chuck­led when he looked up at the score­board on the 18th to see his lead at four, know­ing Oak­mont would be brought up.

Lowry also had a four-shot lead go­ing into the fi­nal round of the 2016 U.S. Open. He closed with a 76 as Dustin John­son ral­lied for his only ma­jor. The pres­sure fig­ures to be even greater this time around as he goes for a sil­ver jug on the Emer­ald Isle.

Lowry says he learned from that day, how to hang in un­til the very end. He has ma­tured. He has a fam­ily. And he wants to em­brace the mo­ment be­cause “who knows when I’ll be in this po­si­tion again? It’s taken me three years to get back here.”

Fleet­wood had his share of sup­port, hugely pop­u­lar for his long hair flow­ing out of his cap and his easy na­ture. He was at 12-un­der 201, has made only two bo­geys through 54 holes and still has to make up a four-shot deficit.

“You have to look at it real­is­ti­cally,” he said. “I had a great day to­day. I had one of the best rounds of the day and I was bo­gey-free. Shane just played great and I’m four back. But that’s it. I’m just happy with how I played.”

Still on the fringe of con­tention was Brooks Koepka, a fa­mil­iar face in the ma­jors. The PGA champ — a win­ner in three of the last six ma­jors — he couldn’t get enough putts to fall and still man­aged a 67. He was seven shots be­hind, along with Justin Rose (68).

“I’ve hit it as good as I could pos­si­bly imag­ine. I putted the worst in the field,” Koepka said. “It’s been re­ally bad. Very frus­trat­ing. Dis­ap­pointed. Thank­fully, it’s go­ing to blow to­mor­row to have any sort of chance. I need to fig­ure out the put­ter.”

Koepka wasn’t about to con­cede any­thing at Portrush, re­gard­less of the weather. He had a seven-shot lead at Beth­page Black in the PGA Cham­pi­onship, saw the lead shrink to one in a mat­ter of four holes, and won by two.

STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY

Ire­land’s Shane Lowry thanks the crowd on the 18th green at Royal Portrush af­ter post­ing a back-nine 30 on Satur­day.

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