A day of golfing perfection from Shane Lowry took the Irishman to the verge of Open Championship victory at Royal Portrush but the 32-year-old is steeling himself for the most challenging day of his career tomorrow.
Lowry’s bogey-free, eight-under-par 63 today, the best since Royal Portrush was updated with two new holes ahead of The Open’s return for the first time since 1951, has given him a four-shot lead over England’s Tommy Fleetwood going into the final round.
It was a masterclass under the pressure of starting the day as a co-leader of a major on home soil as Lowry more than met the expectations of a raucous sell-out crowd which roared his every step around this stunning links terrain with a round that set an Open record for the lowest first 54 holes, his 197 edging past Tom Lehman’s 198 at Lytham in 1996..
“Honestly, that's the most incredible day I've ever had on the golf course,” Lowry said. “I suppose the only way I can describe it is, I'm not sure, but hopefully tomorrow, I said to Bo (caddie Brian Martin) walking off the 17th tee, ‘we might never have a day like this on the golf course again. So let's enjoy this next half hour’. You know what I mean? And that's what I did. The crowd was incredible. I just can't believe what it was like.”
The Offaly man, world number 33, added: “I know tomorrow is going to be a difficult day. I know there's some bad weather coming in. But, look, I'm in a good position and I just have to do what I've been doing all year and hit the reset button tonight and go out there and shoot as good a score as I can tomorrow. And hopefully, that's good enough tomorrow evening.”
While Lowry will take nothing for granted, his remarkable round has caused plenty of damage to the field, taking a large swathe of contenders out of the equation. He six clear of third-placed JB Holmes, the American who started the day level with his Irish co-leader and seven ahead of the first major champions on the leaderboard in a tie for fourth, world number one Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose. All of those trailing in his wake now need to shoot a low number in what is expected to be the worst weather of the week.
Lowry was not allowed to forget he has been in this position before, taking a four-shot lead into the final round of the 2016 US Open only to shoot a 76 and come second to Dustin Johnson.
“Let's get it out into the open now. When I finished, looked at the leaderboard, four ahead, I said to Bo, ‘at least I won't have to answer any questions about Oakmont, I'm four ahead going into the final round of a major’.
Look, I learned a lot that day. I learned a lot about myself at Oakmont. I'm going to learn a lot about myself tomorrow. I feel like, obviously, tomorrow is a huge day in my career. How do I explain this? It probably doesn't mean as much to me as it did then, which is going to make it a little bit easier.
“I think I learned a few things that day about playing in the final round of a major with a lead, that you need to just hang in until the very last minute. You never know what can happen. And I'm going to do the same tomorrow.
“So like, that's a long time ago. I feel like I'm a different person. I don't think I'm a much different golfer, but I feel like I'm a different person now. I think that's what will help me tomorrow.”
Lowry is certain of a repeat of the vociferous support that fuelled his brilliant third round when he tees off in the final group at 1:47pm with Fleetwood, who must find it hard to believe he shot a bogey-free 66 and still lies four shots in arrears.
“I had a great day today. I had one of the best rounds of the day and I was bogey-free. Shane just played great and I'm four back. But that's it, I'm just happy with how I played," Fleetwood said.
“I know what it's going to be like (in the final round). I've had my fair share of support for the first three days. Hopefully there will still be some people out there rooting for me. And it's going to be, for me, especially being in that group, it's going to be harder than the rest of the field, for sure.
“But you play your game. You do your thing. I'm very, very happy to have that challenge. If you had said at the start of today, at the start of the week, at the start of the year, you're going into the last round, whether I'm four back, five back, it doesn't matter, I'm in the last group Sunday at The Open and playing with Shane, and the majority of the crowd might not be with you, I would have said, Yeah, that's fine.
“I'm looking forward to it, to be honest with you. It's going to be another chapter in my career, no matter what happens. And it's going to be a very special day.”