A pre-Open Championship pep talk from coach Neil Manchip propelled a previously uneasy Lowrytowards his lowest opening round in a major and the business end of the leaderboard on a rollercoaster first day at Royal Portrush. But what would Rory McIlroy have given for Lowry’s 67 at The 148th Open?
Lowry’s four-under-par opening salvo means he will start today’s second round in sole possession of second place, one shot off the 18-hole lead held by American JB Holmes. Tournament favourite McIlroy, meanwhile, will spend his day trying to avoid the halfway cut following an awful eight-over 79 in the tournament he so desperately needed to be a victorious homecoming parade.
It was a first round in which New Zealand’s Ryan Fox fired an Open-record back nine of 29, six under par, en route to his 68, one of 13 players tied for third place on three under, a group that includes world number one Brooks Koepka, fellow major champions Sergio Garcia and Webb Simpson, Ryder Cup winners Alex Noren, Tyrrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood, and recent Irish Open winner Jon Rahm, who missed a chance to join Lowry on 67 but missed his par putt at the last.
One that also saw McIlroy’s bid for a first major since 2014 quickly unravel in his Northern Irish backyard, Masters champion Tiger Woods shoot a 78, his worst opening round in 20 Open starts, and Francesco Molinari open his defence of the Claret Jug with a three-over 74.
It was a memorable day on many levels as Portrush resident and 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke marked the return of major championship golf to this linksland for the first time in 68 years by hitting the first shot of the tournament and the weather was as wild as some of the scoring.
Bright sunshine swapped places with periods of heavy rain at regular intervals through the proceedings just as an ace for Emiliano Grillo at the par-three 13th was countered with David Duval’s 14 at the par-five seventh.
So, too, did home hopes veer from Lowry’s feelgood 67 to McIlroy’s desperately anti-climactic 79.
To the horrors of the Holywood golfer’s day first. The world number three had, not for the first time, come into a major ticking all the right boxes for success but this was his chance to shine at a course he had grown up playing and shot a 61 aged 16 in 2005.
The optimism that accompanied McIlroy to the first tee, however, quickly dissipated as he put his tee shot out of bounds left, a day after sending the same shot wide right in practice. It led to an eight on his card and though McIlroy clawed two shots back over the next 14 holes, an awful double bogey at 16, when a simple tap-in from inches away was missed in what he described as an “inexcusable” lapse in concentration.
It was followed by a triple-bogey seven at the last.
“I guess when you play your first and last holes in a combined seven over par, you’re sort of starting on the back foot,” McIlroy said.
Is there a way back from his 79, he was asked as he faced into a second-round battle against the halfway cut?
“Definitely a way back to Florida,” he deadpanned. “Look, I definitely think if I can put the ball in the fairway I can shoot a good enough score to be around for the weekend. I’m pretty sure anyone starting with a 79 in this golf tournament doesn’t think about winning at this point. But I think I can go out there and shoot something in the mid-60s, be around for the weekend, and then try to play good from there.”
Lowry will be thinking the same thing, albeit from a far more advantageous position, one shot behind overnight leader and world number 55 Holmes, whose opening 66, five under par, came late last evening.
The Irishman is nicely poised and will carry the hopes of the tens of thousands of Irish golf fans who will once again throng this famous course today. Yet his career-low majors opening round, eclipsing five first-round 68s since 2010, had needed to be coaxed out of him by coach Manchip.
“I don’t feel like practice went unbelievably well this week,” Lowry, ranked 33 in the world, said. “I felt a little bit uncomfortable. Went for coffee yesterday with Neil down at the Bushmills Inn and we found a little quiet room, we had a great chat for about 40 minutes.
"I left that room full of confidence and ready to go. So we just put everything out in the open, everything out on the table, what could happen, what might happen.” The coffee sessions are a regular feature of the Lowry-Manchip dynamic and this one was perfectly timed.
“To be honest, I really was feeling a bit uneasy about this week yesterday, I’m not going to lie. It was just a great chat. Look, obviously it would be great to do well this week and great to contend, but it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t happen.
I just have to make sure I go out and give 100 per cent today and try my best and hit the shots that I see and see where it leaves me at the end of the day.
Five birdies and one bogey has left the 32-year-old, who had missed four consecutive Open cuts since finished tied for ninth place in 2014, in a healthy position going into today’s second round.
“I thoroughly enjoyed today. The crowds are unbelievable and cheered on every tee box, and every green is such a special feeling. I tried to enjoy that as much as I can while I was doing my work and then getting down to business.
“It’s going to be an exciting few days ahead. I hope I can give them something to cheer about on Sunday afternoon.”