By Neil Leverett
- Ireland’s Shane Lowry defies 55/1 odds to win his first major with -15 score at Royal Portrush, Northern Ireland
- Tommy Fleetwood finishes runner-up six shots off lead, as Tony Finau takes third spot
- Rory McIlroy suffers nightmare on home turf, as Tiger Woods also misses weekend cut
ROYAL PORTRUSH, NORTHERN IRELAND – Following Shane Lowry’s emotional win on Irish soil, what else did we learn from the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush?
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Lowry grabs moment in history
As the rain teemed down in Country Antrim on Sunday evening, few of the thousands of fans that had congregated for the final afternoon of the 148th Open Championship would have cared a jot, as Irishman Shane Lowry lifted the Claret Jug on the 18th green to jubilant scenes.
With the Offaly man winning his first major, the Open continued its’ rich history of heralding the unlikely winner, as Lowry joins the ranks of American quartet Justin Leonard (1997), Ben Curtis (2003), Todd Hamilton (2004) and Stewart Cink (2009), whose only win was indeed the biggest and oldest prize in golf.
Lowry, 32, came close to US Open glory in 2016 – leading by four shots into the final round at Oakmont – before collapsing over the final 18 holes in a weather-disrupted Pennsylvania to shoot 76, as Dustin Johnson claimed his first major – his only to date.
The Westmeath-born player has always shown the ability to be there on the final afternoon, but until Sunday at Portrush had managed only a joint-ninth finish in the Open Championship.
Whilst many had expected another Irishman to feature heavily, nay win the tournament as it returned to Antrim shores for the first time in 68 years, it was Lowry who stole the headlines and dominated from his tie for the lead with JB Holmes after 36 holes, sealing an emotional win and indeed his place in sporting history.
For Rory McIlroy – arguably Northern Ireland’s favourite son – the story was quite the opposite as his dreams of winning a second Open crown on home soil turned into nightmares from that of a Steven King novel.
Expectations of his chances had reached fervent levels in the build up to Portrush, but many a failed to take into context the heavy of burden of pressure on McIlroy’s shoulders, in looking to end a five-year major drought. In the end, that pressure cooker of hope boiled over spectacularly, ended McIlroy’s hopes even before they had began.
Few though could have anticipated the chance of the Northern Irishman missing the cut. The notion itself was something from fictional text, but despite a gallant and battling second round 65 on the course he had as a youngster hit a low 60 score, the former Open Champion would not be partaking in the weekend’s proceedings.
From his opening-hole quadruple bogey, a brain freeze on Calamity, through to a seven on the 18th green on Thursday, it was his manner of failure in particular that raises more questions than answers, about where next to turn for the Holywood man.
Tough questions to answer
Having extended his win-less major streak to now 19, his double-winning 2014 season at both Royal Liverpool and Valhalla now seem a distant image – and fading further into the memory.
With the 2019 major season having concluded, McIlroy must now surely address all areas of his game. That may include a change of his Miami surroundings, having picked up just three PGA Tour wins since 2017 and his move to the Sunshine State.
This year may have seen McIlroy become only the second Briton to win the Players Championship, and also win the Canadian Open by seven strokes, but in the major competitions his mental frailties have let him down time and time again.
Pressure has again been the watchword, having now failed to secure the career Grand Slam at Augusta and the prized Green Jacket now five years in a row, which since 2016 has seen the burden of expectation become quite the load.
In giving away a three-shot final round lead to eventual winner Adam Scott that year, McIlroy’s mental issues in closing out a major rose to surface and since then have only grown in the back of his mind.
This is perhaps the most pertinent issue for the Northern Irishman now; even McIlroy’s most vehement critics could not deny his is still one of the best in the game, but ability is not enough to win in the modern era. Right now, the psychology of his game in becoming problematic for McIlroy to manage and in 2020, that must change
16 for Woods is tall task
Royal Portrush will also leave a sour taste in the mouth of Tiger Woods, who together with McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and former runner-up Scott failed to make the weekend in County Antrim.
Woods’ remarkable win at Augusta back in April reignited hopes of the 43-year-old catching Jack Nicklaus‘ record of 18 wins, but it now seems that the Californian’s efforts to win a sixth Green Jacket, may have taken much of what Woods has left.
Following multiple back surgeries, the 15-time major champion has had to pick and choose his competitions – with only a small build-up period before each major – in the newly introduce four-month major season in the sport. That may now be his biggest problem.
Woods was expected to challenge at Pebble Beach for the US Open, but his lack of match practice proved telling there, and at the Open – having flown into the country only days before the first round – Woods’s opening-round 78 saw the three-time winner found out on the links again.
Next year’s calendar, in particular the likely warmer environs of the Open at Royal St. Georges’ may present a better opportunity, but as Woods approaches the twilight of his career, the goal may now be only 16 major titles. But even that may be out of his reach.
Royal St Georges’ on the horizon
The Kent coast will indeed now be the target for 2020’s final major fling, and as the Open assumes it rightful place as the final prize of the year, Royal St. Georges’ turn on the rotation approaches in 12 months’ time.
With Sandwich again set to welcome the best in the game, the only course in Southern England to feature on the Open system presents a very different challenge, last won by Darren Clarke in 2011 to emotional scenes.
With the 43rd Ryder Cup in Wisconsin to follow two months later, the stakes will be even higher when the tour arrives in Kent, as the US look to again wrestle back control of the Samuel Ryder Trophy they lost in France last September.
The Masters takes place at Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Georgia, between 9-12 April 2020.
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