Pleasantries over, it’s time for glory’s last shot at US PGA
McIlroy and Lowry joined Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm for a final practice round
Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry of Ireland walk off the 12th tee during a practice round prior to the 2018 US PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St Louis, Missouri. Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images
What’s best? To live in the spotlight, or to fly in under the radar? Two of the four Irish players in this 100th edition of the PGA Championship completed their final preparations here at Bellerive Country Club with a handshake on the 18th green. For one, Rory McIlroy, the roars of adoration started immediately, and with them the demands for autographs and his time; for the other, Shane Lowry, there was an easier escape.
As Lowry made his way up the steps and across the walkway towards the locker room, his gait light and a smile across his face, the suspicion that flying in under the radar was no bad thing. Could he be the one? Who knows? But this championship has bestowed its favours in the past with a wonderful inconsistency, on the great but also the good. On those loaded with expectations, and those with few.
In this championship, the storylines are entangled like a woven golden necklace in need of unravelling. There’s Jordan Spieth’s bid for the career Grand Slam. Justin Thomas’s quest to win back-to-back, in both weeks and in years. Dustin Johnson. McIlroy. The Tiger factor. A stream of possibilities; not quite equating to all of the 156 players in the field, but enough to make for an intriguing fourth and final Major of the season.
“I feel somewhat under the radar this year. I’ve kind of felt that way a lot this year. I don’t mind it,” observed Spieth, a player who – arguably – has the most to achieve this week. Yet, a mischievous putter has turned from a strength into his Achilles heel this season. And, ironically, the greens here will be a bigger factor than envisaged with the PGA of America putting up signs in the players’ locker-room to provide advance warning that they will be speeded up through the championship.
McIlroy looked good in practice, his malfunctioning of Sunday’s final round at Akron forgotten. So too Johnson. “He has no weakness in his game . . . . he’s a person that’s very hard to beat,” offered defending champion Thomas of the man he is attempting to leapfrog atop the world rankings.
For Lowry, with his brother Alan on the bag temporarily, there is a renewed zeal. It is obvious in his face, his body language. In the past two weeks, he has actually contended at different phases of tournaments in the Canadian Open and the Barracuda Championship. He has started to smell the roses again.
The final practice round with McIlroy was pre-arranged, and has started to become a habit at the Majors. “For me, playing with one of the world’s best golfers can’t be but a help can it? We enjoyed being out there, we’d a good laugh,” said Lowry. But it was more than the two of them. Jon Rahm joined them. So, too, world number one Dustin Johnson. It was an occasion for someone like Lowry to stick out his chest and realise his place. “I don’t feel any bit out of my comfort zone with those lads,” he said.
Lowry – currently outside the top 125 on the FedEx Cup who retain their PGA Tour card, following next week’s Wyndham Championship – has parked any thoughts of that particular matter and instead focused on the here and now. “It is all about this week,” he said.
With his brother on the bag, ala Johnson and his brother Austin, Lowry has taken on more on-course responsibility: “I am doing more myself, taking the onus on myself as opposed to having someone to lean on and having someone to blame. I think that has helped me. When you hit a bad shot there is nothing else you can do only go up and try and get it up and down. You say my body language looks a bit different. It feels different to be honest. It feels like I am in a better place on the course.”
Just as McIlroy and Lowry twinned-up for their final preparations, so too did the other two Irish players in the field, Paul Dunne and Pádraig Harrington. Both have worked hard on the range these past few days, with Dunne – who felt rusty at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last week having been unable to practice the previous week after undergoing a medical procedure to drain a cyst on his wrist – making up for lost time with his swing coach Eric Eshleman by his side.
Of a somewhat changed mindset, Dunne observed: “My game has felt so much in control for parts of the year and in other parts it has felt so lost. So I am trying to figure out what the difference is and piecing it all together.”
And, who knows, maybe it will be someone flying in under the radar. Maybe even Spieth.
But, as Lowry pointed out, “a lot of time in these things, a good bit, someone kind of swoops in from behind . . . like Brooks (Koepka). He is like the forgotten man, nobody talks about him and he has won two US Opens!”
Or himself? “I am going out there and giving it my best. I feel great, and I am in a good place at the minute.”