Shane Lowry not going to give up British Open crown without a fight

Defending champion comes in a little under the radar but with the perfect game for links

Old habits die hard and all of that. In the case of Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, the ritual has traditionally involved an early-morning practice round ahead of the main event. It worked in 2011 when the elder lifted the Claret Jug, and again in 2014 when the younger did so. Not so in other years.

On Wednesday the two were at it again in together, finalising their preparations for the 149th British Open Championship at Royal St George's Golf Club. Later on it was the turn of the other two Irish players in the field, Shane Lowry and Pádraig Harrington, who hooked up for a final trial run-out (with interloper Antoine Rozner) on a links, green and lush, and without any evidence of living up to that notorious pinball analogy of balls bouncing each and any way, that belatedly will crown golf's oldest Major's newest champion.

Two years on from Lowry's coronation at Royal Portrush, with the championship postponed in 2020, the impact of Covid-19 has again been felt with a number of defections, some 17 from the original field, among them Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama. Yet, the presence of 32,000 spectators daily will ensure an atmosphere to match the demands on creativity that the links, one of the toughest on the rota, will likely present.

"It's a shot-making paradise for a guy who is on his game and can visualise that low shot," predicted Ernie Els.


Who that may be remains to be seen? It could possibly be Jon Rahm, arguably the hottest player on the planet right now, even if a vagary of the world rankings has seen him deposed as number one by Dustin Johnson in this week of all weeks. Or, perhaps more likely, one of any number of others. For, despite the defections, the strength of field in his championship is only marginally behind those of the PGA and US Open and stronger than the Masters.

In what is the fourth and final Major of the year, there is a genuine openness to it all. Rahm, rightly, is the favourite but, links being links, the nature of the beast is such that outside factors – predominantly the wind – come into play; and, while the terrain is unlikely to be as fiery as past years at this venue, the rough is thick and tangly and set to penalise, as it should, any errant shots.

“Obviously nowadays if you hit the ball a long way, that’s an advantage, but it’s only an advantage around here if you hit it straight, as well,” observed Lee Westwood.

“I don’t think this is one of those courses that you can overpower. You can overpower it with a straight shot, but you can’t hit it in the rough and play it I don’t think, especially the way they’ve set it up.”

Although only four Irish players have made it into the field, it is a case of quality rather than quantity. McIlroy’s missed cut at the Scottish Open (a tournament he only belatedly added onto his schedule) led to an early arrival to Sandwich and the opportunity to spread out his preparations. “Rory is so gifted and talented that if it’s just one little thing that clicks in his head and it works for him, he gets out there and he frees up and goes,” said Clarke after playing their final practice round.

And, as the championship has edged ever closer, the sense that Lowry, especially, is set to make a strong defence has only grown stronger. Relaxed and good natured – posing on the 18th fairway for a snapshot with Harrington and Rozner and the three Irish caddies on their bags – and with that little anxiety in his belly to provide an edge. “I’d give anything to have a chance to win come the weekend,” said Lowry.

He's not alone, for sure. Rahm will be seeking to go back-to-back in the Majors, in attempting to add the Claret Jug to his US Open of last month. Johnson will be seeking to claim a third career Major, in attempting to add the oldest trophy of them all to his Masters win of last November. Justin Thomas. McIlroy, who hasn't won one since his US PGA of 2014.

Others, too, among them those seeking a breakthrough Major. Xander. Viktor. Scottie.

Even the history of past winners at Royal St George's provides hope for one and all. If Ben Curtis could find a way in 2003; or Clarke, in 2011, when he too found inspiration from somewhere to fulfil his boyhood dream . . . well, then, it is a matter of who can walk through the open door.

"At the end of the day it just comes down to how well you're playing. Are you going to make the putts, are you going to hit the right shots at the right time, avoid bunkers out here, keep it out of the rough?" wondered Brooks Kopeka aloud in deciphering the formula for whoever will manage to claim the 149th edition of the British Open.

Philip Reid four to watch

Tyrrell Hatton
: 25-1
It's hard to believe than no English player has lifted the Claret Jug since Nick Faldo's win at Muirfield in 1992, or than no English player has won the title on English soil since Tony Jacklin at Royal Lytham and St Annes in 1969. Could Hatton be the one to end such a drought? He has the attitude, and he has the skill set. Won't back off if he gets a sniff.

Scottie Scheffler
Can history repeat itself? Ben Curtis marked his first win on the PGA Tour with success on the Sandwich links in 2003. Scheffler – like most Texan golfers – is a good wind player and has knocked on the door in search of a breakthrough win in recent months. This is his first Open but he has shown an appetite for the Majors with three top-10s and five top-20s in his six career appearances.

Marc Leishman
There's an awful lot of Aussie momentum at the moment, and Leishman – third in his last competitive outing at the Travelers last month – could jump on the moving train. His game, with an ability to shape shots, is well suited to links terrain.

Pádraig Harrington
Nothing sentimental about giving the 49-year-old two-time Claret Jug champion a nod: Harrington is one of the best wind players the game has ever seen and is as mentally tough as they come. The distraction of Ryder Cup captaincy hasn't hindered his game at all, rather it has inspired him. The harder the wind blows, the more he'll like it.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times