Houston Open could offer both McIlroy and Lowry the lift-off they need

McIlroy using Houston to tune up for Augusta while Lowry continues his PGA Tour education

Rory McIlroy returns to action at the Shell Houston Open on Thursday. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy returns to action at the Shell Houston Open on Thursday. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images


The road to Texas for this week’s Shell Houston Open will effectively start a new phase in the season for the two Irish players in the field: for Rory McIlroy, no longer the world number one, it kick-starts a final run-in to next month’s US Masters; for Shane Lowry, playing on a sponsor’s invitation, it presents another opportunity to familiarise himself with playing on the PGA Tour, where he has designs on a full card.

McIlroy’s disappointing season so far – playing with new Nike clubs – has seen him secure just one top-10 finish (and no wins) in four outings.

The 23-year-old Ulsterman’s problems, with questions over his swing, hit a low point in last month’s Honda Classic when he walked off the course but a first top-10 of the season at the following week’s WGC-Cadillac championship had him insisting on the need “to stay patient” and making the point, “whatever happens, happens . . . if I put in the hard work, results will bear fruit”.

The tournament in Houston is McIlroy’s final warm-up before the season’s first Major at Augusta, and McIlroy has also revealed plans to make a humanitarian visit to Haiti in his role as a sporting ambassador for Unicef Ireland after playing in Texas and before heading to the Masters.

He made a similar visit to the impoverished country prior to winning a breakthrough Major at the US Open in 2011.

Whilst McIlroy at least has the status to map out his own itinerary, Lowry’s schedule is up in the air. The Offalyman is keen to play more regularly on the US Tour and, to that end, has sought some sponsors’ invitations before he focuses back on the European Tour for the meat of his season, starting with the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May.

Before then, he is hoping to make the most of his invitation to Houston this week and another scheduled invitation to the New Orleans Classic.

Of course, a good performance in Houston this week could open even more doors; a win would get him into the upcoming Masters, a top-10 would earn him a spot in next week’s Valero Texas Open. He has a lot to play for.

Lowry makes no secret of his desire to play on the PGA Tour:

“I think the American game is suited to good drivers of the ball, good wedge players and a good short game.

“They are some of the strongest parts of my game. If I keep working on my iron play, try to progress a little with that, I think I could do well over there . . . . the main thing is it actually suits my game over there and I really want to give it a shot.”

Lowry, with limited outings so far, is “very hungry” to get going again, but is also aware the light early-season schedule, by accident rather than design, could actually work to his benefit.

“Sometimes you feel you’ve got to play loads at the start of the year because you haven’t played in a while, but it turns out to be a long year then. Now, I think I’ll be fresh come mid-to-late summer.”

For now, it’s a matter of getting the most out of his Houston invitation and taking it step by step and continuing to learn.

As if to demonstrate that you’re always learning on tour, Lowry points to the experience of playing with Phil Mickelson at the tail end of last season in China.

Aggressive golfer
“I’m an aggressive golfer but he’s the most aggressive I’ve ever played with . . . he just goes at everything. I suppose I learned a bit from it.”

McIlroy and Lowry have Texas on their minds, but Morocco is the destination for the quintet of Irish players competing in the Hassan Trophy on the European Tour this week: defending champion Michael Hoey is joined by Peter Lawrie, Damien McGrane, Gareth Maybin and David Higgins.