I’m still hoarse, I’m still tired, I’m still proud, I’m still so, so happy! What a week! You could throw a thesaurus of hyperbole at it and it still wouldn’t do it justice. An Open in Ireland; an Open at Portrush; an Irish winner. It’s the stuff of dreams. It would be rejected as a film script as being too far-fetched, too perfect. Yet it happened and we all lived it, breathed it and, ultimately, celebrated it. God help Royal St George’s. Just how do you follow that?
My decision to eschew all work was one of my better moments. This was not an Open to be inside the ropes. It needed to be experienced in the raw, unshackled by responsibility and lack of bias, surrounded by tens of thousands of fervent, nervous, Irishmen and women all united in providing support for the one man Ryder Cup team that was Shane Lowry. And we prevailed. And Shane prevailed. And the party is continuing.
The week kicked off for nearly every member of our house party with a 6.35am appointment at the 1st tee on Thursday to see Darren Clarke, winner of this championship in 2011, hit the opening tee shot. With his perfect sense of occasion Darren, a fellow member of the host club, birdied the opening hole and I took a photo of him on the 2nd tee so I could have a picture of an Irishman leading an Open in Ireland. Little did I know what would unfold over the next few days. I walked every step of that first round with Darren while he crafted his even par 71 and Shane was already at work fashioning a very solid 67, flashing a warning shot across the bows of those who cared to notice. By day’s end he had tucked himself in behind the leader, the glacial JB Holmes, who had signed for a 66.
It was at this point, however, that the jungle drums across the course were beating out the dire news that favourite Rory McIlroy had knocked his opening tee shot OB and started with a calamitous 8. This was not in the script for the man who, as a 16-year old, had shot a course record 61 round the Dunluce course. As he always does, Rory fought back, but a lack of focus late in the day resulted in a ragged finish and a demoralising 79. The unfettered brilliance of a Friday 65 was not enough for Rory to escape the executioner’s axe and we saw deep into his soul in his honest and emotional interviews afterwards with various TV, radio and news outlets. Wanting so much to do so well in front of his home crowds ultimately swamped him. But he’ll work it out and he’ll be back.
Friday also saw the departure of three more of the six-strong Irish contingent. The Amateur Champion, James Sugrue from Mallow in County Cork, was one too many despite two steady offerings of 71, 73. Perhaps his dreams will be filled with that triple bogey 7 he took on the 14th. So near, yet so far.
Padraig Harrington, winner of the Claret Jug in 2007 and 2008 and the man responsible for making us all believe the Irish could win majors, shot 75, 70 to be two adrift and, heartbreakingly, Darren took 7 up the last when a 5 would have been good enough for him to play the weekend. He departed the 18th green with no words and moist eyes. Golf does that to you.
Graeme McDowell was full of emotion as well when he reached the last green on Friday, a second round 70 securing him a tee time the following day on the course he grew up on and which his younger brother, Gary, tends as part of Graeme Beatt’s magnificent ground staff. If you are Irish and a sports lover you are well accustomed to roller-coaster rides in support of your countrymen and women across local, national and global stages, but this was only Friday, for goodness sake, and I was already feeling more than a little wrung out.
Almost unnoticed Shane had recorded another 67 and when we wiped our eyes, sniffing loudly and pretending we all seemed to have wretched summer colds, there was an Irishman at the top of the leaderboard. Come ON, Shane-O!
Saturday was the day that the Portrush links put on its best bib and tucker with sunny skies and sublime views every which way you turned. It was picture postcard perfect – and so was Shane’s golf. Ten pars and eight birdies added up to a sensational 63, a new course record which included an inward nine of 30 which blew away the opposition. The result – a four-shot lead. Much was made of the fact that Shane had “blown” a similar lead in the US Open in 2016 at Oakmont but this wasn’t remotely similar. For starters, he teed off early on that Sunday morning in Oakmont in order to finish off his third round. He then left the course for a few hours before coming back for the last round – no time to come down from the high of snatching the lead or the huge adrenalin rush of that great finish to his third round. This time he drank in the universal plaudits on Saturday evening, took stock, relaxed and then had time to turn his mind to what lay ahead and prepare himself for the greatest day of his life.
And so to Sunday. G-Mac tacked a closing 77 on to Saturday’s 68 to finish on +4 and tied 57th and took himself off to the players’ lounge to watch his friend and organise the victory party.
The forecast was vile and it proved to be accurate but none of us cared, convinced our man could handle the conditions better than anyone. Sure hadn’t he won the Irish Open as an amateur a decade previously in weather you wouldn’t put a cat out in? That faith was put to the test very early on when Shane had played four shots and was still eight feet shy of the first hole. That’s when I learned that the simultaneous crossing of fingers, holding of breath and praying really does work when it’s multiplied by tens of thousands. The bogey putt was safely holed and his lead was never really threatened again. With the wind howling and the rain lashing the multi-coloured river of spectators flowed in and around the course, no one leaving, no one going in to the shelter of the tented village. The stands remained full and the number of brollies fighting the wind diminished as the litter bins filled to overflowing with their tattered remains. It was glorious. We felt we were all in this together. The predominant accents were Irish – from every corner of the island – no surprise really when you consider the home fans were quickest off the mark when the tickets went on sale.
And, finally, the 18th, and we surged up the fairway after our hero had sent his second sailing towards the green. The marshals were valiant – they had allowed us on the fairways short of the greens on the back nine so more people could get a decent view – but they had no chance on the last. Joyous, full-throated roars and unrestrained celebrations were unleashed and everywhere you looked arms were raised aloft as we all revelled in the moment of watching history in the making.. The giant, horseshoe stand was literally jumping as Shane tapped in. I’m not sure he ever did pick his ball out of the hole.
The man from Clara, Co Offaly, had carried all our hopes and he didn’t disappoint. He says we carried him, too, and we didn’t disappoint either.The party began. The party continues.
The unforgettable week ended with seven unforgettable words. Shane Lowry, Champion Golfer of the Year.