Shane Lowry inserts some Offaly into gilded world of golf’s elite

Irish fans rightly proud of the easygoing Claret Jug holder who keeps game in perspective

 Shane Lowry: think of him in  Butler’s Cabin and it’s easy to imagine all that hokey formality and snobbery melting away for an evening,  the lush preserve of ole’ southern gentility would be Offalyised for one night only. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA ,

Shane Lowry: think of him in Butler’s Cabin and it’s easy to imagine all that hokey formality and snobbery melting away for an evening, the lush preserve of ole’ southern gentility would be Offalyised for one night only. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA ,

 

The dream of a golfer from this island trying on the green jacket in the Butler Cabin in Augusta stands as one of the last frontiers for Irish sport.

On Thursday evening, I sat nattering on the phone with my brother, both of us keeping an eye on the Masters on television when suddenly he said: “Oh, there’s Lowry now”.

And there he was; the big Offaly man with the velvet touch managing to breach the broadcast director’s obsession with showing Dustin Johnson at every turn.

There has been so much hot talk about whether things would or wouldn’t ‘happen’ for Rory McIlroy at this year’s tournament that Lowry could all but slip into Georgia unnoticed, which is unusual for an Open champion.

The pandemic has wreaked such havoc with our grasp of time that Lowry’s fabulous Open win at Portrush already seems part of the dimly remembered time before-all-of-this-ever-went-down. But it was the July before last when Lowry showed up and won golf’s ancient tournament by a lavish six strokes. And because the Open was not played last year, he remains the holder: the Clara man with the Claret Jug.

And here he was now making light of the famously treacherous Augusta greens. He moved through the first nine holes in that laconic, unfussy way of his and fired a nimble two under par with almost no conversation about him. And across the plains of Ireland then a swathe of golf fans allowed themselves the fantasy: what if Lowry . . . wouldn’t it just be like Offaly?

Those of us who don’t live in Offaly – and it’s a fair chunk of the world’s population – can be forgiven for harbouring the sneaking suspicion that they’ve quietly and craftily got the tricky business of how to live life well down to a fine art.

Offaly is different. You bump into someone in Offaly and get the sense that if they’re not directly heading to a party, then they are not long after leaving one.

You’re not five minutes over the county line when you can feel it: a kind of blissed-out, serene atmosphere that serves as a kind of whisper in the ear of all visitors. What’s the rush? You’ll get there eventually.

Even the dogs on the streets in Tullamore or Shannonbridge blink out upon the world with a blithe stoner’s contentment. The Offaly Way is partly a myth of course: the moseying accent helps and the illusion that their best hurling and football teams were capable of winning All-Irelands purely because the mood took them has set the Faithful County apart.

Mischievous twinkle

Offaly is hardly a hotbed of golf culture so it makes perfect sense that when the place should be arsed with producing a world class player, they’d gift the world with a creature like Lowry.

He only took up the sport at the age of 12 and took just a decade to win the Irish Open as a 22-year-old amateur. And he bounced around the edges of Irish sport for the following decade as an unacknowledged national treasure: gifted and approachable and entirely himself.

Shortly before the dazzling, out-of-the-blue British Open win (which did nothing to lessen the Offaly myths, as if Lowry had reluctantly broken away from a promising weekend in Birr with perhaps a few Troys and a scatter of Pilkingtons to fulfil his obligation and then thought ‘sure feck it I may as well win it when I’m here’), Lowry appeared on Tommy Tiernan’s chat show. It was springtime and he had just come back from winning the Abu Dhabi championship.

“How much did you win?” Tiernan asked with the mischievous twinkle and he pressed until Lowry admitted he’d won a million quid. It opened the door to a fascinating conversation to which most elite sports people would never submit.

What happens when you don’t come from money and are suddenly swimming in it? And Lowry was honest, allowing he’d indulged in a bit of daftness but didn’t do anything with the Dubai winnings other than buy himself a pair of shoes – and, he remembered, a pair for his wife.

“She must have been de-light-ed,” Tiernan said. “You didn’t pass by a jewellers at all?”

Lowry guffawed. And the following 10 minutes were such an exhibition of warmth and laughter that anyone watching knew that from then on, they’d happily cheer for the Offaly man in an egg and spoon race, let alone the British Open.

In the summer of 2018, Lowry played a hole at Ballyliffin before the Irish Open with the broadcaster Joe Molloy accompanying him and asking the kind of questions that every amateur golf enthusiast would love to ask.

How will you approach this tee? What are you thinking about when you putt? (“About nothing except keeping my body still.”).

It was remarkable not just for Lowry’s generosity with his mindset but also as an illuminating glimpse into the craziness that comes with being one of the best golfers in the world; the constant battling with form and momentum, the months in the doldrums when your game is suffering and the helplessness of not knowing when that worm will turn, the loneliness and crankiness.

“Golf is volatile,” he admitted. “90th in the world. Is it disastrous? Not so long ago I was the happiest man in the world when I broke into the top 100.”

Mixed blessing

It’s a mixed blessing to have Lowry and McIlroy emerge from Ireland’s wind- and rain-beaten golf heritage at the same time. The year will come – again – when there is no Irish golfer at Augusta. For an unbroken run of maybe 20 Aprils, Ireland has had plausible contenders.

McIlroy, seeking just the Masters to complete the fabled career grand slam, remains a puzzle.

Before the tournament even began, he had provided the most riveting angle, talking about his visit with the recuperating Tiger Woods and how he noticed that he only had his Major trophies (all 15) on display. Fascinated, McIlroy asked where he kept the others – the ordinary tournament wins.

Woods hadn’t a clue. McIlroy drove away a few hours later, as mystified as the rest of the world by the singular obsession with which Woods attacked golfing immortality.

In a way, Lowry has been able to bloom in McIlroy’s shadow and that may suit him just fine. When he first played the Masters, six years ago, the television commentators kept getting his name wrong: he was Steven, he was McLowry. He was just a big Irish guy at the periphery of their minds.

His talent has ensured he commands a more central role now. He cuts a wonderfully unique figure in the well-tailored world of contemporary golf, part Everyman, distinctly Irish and entirely himself.

You think of Shane Lowry in the Butler’s Cabin and it’s easy to imagine all that hokey formality and snobbery melting away for an evening: that the lush preserve of ole’ southern gentility would be Offalyised, for one night only.

It’s a fantasy, of course, a bit of make-believe that seemed more remote as we left him on an overcast Friday afternoon, bogeying and birdieing his way through the first nine. But still; Ireland’s lucky to have him.

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