Shane Lowry might not win the Honda Classic, but if last night’s opening 67 is a taste of what’s to come this season, he may well join that major-winning club.
The 28-year old defied winds gusting up to 30 mph to finish birdie-eagle for a three under 67 worth a share of fifth place behind clubhouse leader Sergio Garcia, who shot a five under 65 to lead by one from William McGirt and Rickie Fowler.
Graeme McDowell shot a steady, one over par 71, while Rory McIlroy — his short game misfiring — three-putted the 18th from 10 feet for par and a two over 72.
As for defending champion Pádraig Harrington, who played alongside McIlroy, the Dubliner lost a ball up a palm tree and double bogeyed the 10th en route to a 73 that left him in the bottom half of the field.
And so it was Lowry who flew the flag for Irish golf with his stunning morning round, and it’s clear the Offaly man has moved up a level with his win in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron last year.
He is not just backing himself to make the Ryder Cup team the hard way by taking on Europe’s US-based superstars for just five spots via the world points list; he’s confident he has the game to answer the questions in a major.
His opening round on the Champion Course at PGA National was hugely impressive, not just because he conquered a steady crosswind on a water-strewn course, but because he took on the tough shots and pulled them off when others were running for cover.
“It’d it up there in the top 15 rounds of my career,” a beaming Lowry said after mixing an eagle and five birdies with four bogeys. “A 67 out there feels like a 62 or 63 to be honest.”
The highlight of his day was the raking, 243-yard three-iron to the par-five 18th that pitched at the front of the green and finished just three feet from the stick.
“The wind was howling out of the left,” Lowry explained. “It was a hard three-iron and tried to not let it go right. I was just trying to get it up somewhere left of the green or somewhere on the left side of the green and thankfully it came off straight at the flag and released down to about three feet. It was a nice way to finish.”
Lowry played brilliantly early on and reeled off a hat-trick of birdies from the fourth with a brace of five irons to less than three feet both the fifth and sixth, two of the most spectacular shots you could wish to see.
“It is very instinctive,” he said of playing in the wind.
“You get your yardage some advice from your caddie but you know that if you’ve got 190 into the wind, if you hit a hard five iron it will get up and that you need to hit a soft four iron to stay down under the wind.”
He credits performance coach Robbie Cannon and his chiropractor, Shane Lawlor, with giving him the physical tools to avoid “lazy swings”, and eliminate a hip problem that led to a stock bad shot.
But despite all his early brilliance, he almost threw his round away, three-putting the seventh and eighth for bogeys, and then dropping another shot at the tough 10th, where he was forced to lay up after a poor tee shot.
With the Bear Trap ahead, disaster lurked. But Lowry responded by taking on the course and producing a homeward nine of 33.
He didn’t birdie the 11th after a hold-up six iron from 170 yard to 15 feet. But it gave him confidence to finish the round beautifully.
“That was the best shot I hit today, into that crosswind,” Lowry said. “Water on the right and you can’t miss left because it is an impossible chip.”
After following missed three footer for birdie at the 12th with a birdie at the 13th and regulation bogey into the wind at the tough 14th — “It was either three-iron or five-wood into the wind and the pin looks like it’s in a canoe on the right side of the green” — Lowry negotiated the Bear Trap in one under.
The wind was helping at the 17th and with the tee up, he hit a nine iron to 17 feet and made two having played gutsy iron shots to the heart of both the 15th and 16th greens, the latter a nerve-shredding mid-iron over water to 18 feet from a fairway trap.
His eagle finish showed his class but given his ambition, we should not have been surprised.
“I have always had very high expectations of myself,” he said, as Phil Mickelson answered questions nearby about a solid opening 69. “I was never going to be a golfer who was happy making a certain about of money a year.
“I want to go out and try to win tournaments. Obviously the win at Firestone has helped. I know I can do it and I know there is no-one in the field that I fear.”
McIlroy and Harrington went off together in the afternoon but it was a fraught day for the Dubliner, who used binoculars to try and identify his ball at the top of a tall palm tree at the 10th but couldn’t, and was forced to retreat to the tee.
He bogeyed the 11th to boot to go four over and did well in the end to sign for a 73, as McIlroy made five birdies, four bogeys and a double bogey six in a rollercoaster 72.
The world No three went out in one over, but while he had birdies at the 12th, 13th and 15th, he visited three bunkers as he made a double bogey six at the 14th, bogeyed the 16th off a perfect tee shot and overshot the 18th after a 333 yard drive.
He bunkered over the back of the green, splashed out to 10 feet, ran his birdie putt two feet past, and missed for par for a 32-putt round.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved