As he prepares to defend The Open at Royal St George’s, reigning champion Shane Lowry talks about life with the Claret Jug, winning a Major at Royal Portrush, growing up in Rory McIlroy’s shadow and his determination to make the Ryder Cup team.
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Shane Lowry hasn’t minded waiting an extra 12 months to defend The Open Championship. It's just meant the Irishman having the Claret Jug on display on his mantelpiece longer than any other champion in history.
Now, two years on from that famous victory at Royal Portush, the Irishman is ready to do everything he can to keep it for another year with a successful defence at Royal St George's.
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The 34-year-old has spent much of his time as Champion Golfer of the (Two) Years living in America due to the pandemic, and while he admits to being recognised more in the street since winning The Open, he’s just glad people no longer mistake him for Andrew “Beef” Johnston!
But, as he told Today's Golfer, the battle for recognition is one he's been fighting ever since he burst onto the scene as an amateur...
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Do you feel any different as Major champion?
No, the incredible thing is since The Open I actually don’t feel any different. If you had asked me before, “Are things going to change and will you feel different?”, I would have said yes. It’s obviously changed my career path a little bit but, as a person, I don’t feel any different. I don’t think it’s changed me.
I just know that if I’m in the hunt again in big tournaments, I can do it. That’s one thing that does change – you know you can dig deep.
How special was it to win at Portrush - had you even contemplated it?
Growing up, I didn’t know The Open would ever go back to Ireland. Never even thought about it, to be honest. Even a year or so beforehand, I never really thought about it.
First of all you’ve got to make sure you’re in it. Then you do start to think about (winning) it. It was very special for all the people involved.
I remember G-Mac holed a 20-30-footer on the last in Canada to make it to Portrush, and how big a deal that was for someone who’d achieved so much in his career. No matter who I talked to – players, caddies or whoever – 99 percent of those people said Portrush was the best venue they’d ever been to.
You've played in a lot of big events, but how did the atmosphere compare?
I said on the Saturday evening I’d never seen anything like this on a golf course. I’m sure Ryder Cups are similar, but it was pretty cool to help bring that kind of atmosphere.
The Open is probably the purest tournament we play every year, the crowds that go along are proper golf fans – they really know their stuff. Sharing those moments with the Irish crowds are memories I’ll have forever. It’s great to be the Open champion – but, as I get older, I’ll probably appreciate it a bit more.
At what stage during that final round did you think "I've won The Open"?
Not until I got past the 17th tee. I knew once I’d got past the 17th tee shot, I couldn’t really mess it up from there. I’d struggled with that tee shot all week – I nearly lost a ball in the first round and I hit a bad shot in the second. It’s quite a tough and daunting tee shot, 17, so once I got past that I knew I could breathe a sigh of relief.
And the celebrations soon began...
When you win something like that you’ve got to enjoy it. I’ve always said and believed that. A lot of golfers did say to me afterwards how much they enjoyed watching me celebrate, because some of them who’ve been successful in the past probably didn’t enjoy their success as much as they should. Now they’re not successful anymore, they wish they’d enjoyed it more.
I had a great week with my friends and family, it was something very special and those pictures and those memories will live with us for the rest of our lives…
Has the pressure to succeed not increased since your Open victory at Royal Portrush?
Yeah, but I’ve always put the most pressure on myself over the years. I’ve always been very critical. You know, I don’t really look outside what other people think. I just go with what I’m doing and just try to do my best.
Portrush is the pinnacle of my career. Whatever I do in the rest of my career I’ll never get anywhere close, let alone top it. I’m very grateful it happened, but I’ll probably spend the rest of my career chasing that same feeling again! But, realistically, it’s going to be a big ask.
Has it given you more belief?
I go to win every tournament I play in. I know if I bring my best golf, my best game, I can win. I wouldn’t go shouting about how good I think I am, but I’m very confident in my own ability, always have been.
Put me on the back nine on a Sunday against anybody and I’ll back myself. I had a great chance to win the US Open in 2016 and let it slip and that was eating away at me a little bit, thinking I’d lost my big chance. It seems the bigger the event, the more I can produce my best golf. I’d rather have it that way than any other way!
How do you rate your chances at Royal St George's?
It is a very tricky course. I played in the British Amateur there, the only time I’ve been. I don’t know the course that well; I just know it’s tricky. I'm delighted that we're going to have some crowds. It will be a bit weird to defend it two years on, but that’s the way it is.
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Pete Cowen tells a great story about seeing you for the first time at an Irish boys coaching session. All eyes were on Rory McIlroy, but he spotted how good you were right away.
(Laughs) I know what you’re going to say, “the little fellow with the glasses.”
Did you know by then that you had what it takes to play on tour? Pete certainly did...
He’s been around and doesn’t bullsh*t. But he didn’t tell me that story at the time, which is maybe a good thing. I was fairly shy as a youngster and didn’t really know how good I was. Besides, back then it was all ‘Rory this and Rory that.’
Plus, there were other lads better than me. I’d have been playing about No.5 for Ireland. I quickly improved, though. I won the Irish Close at 19. And when Rory turned pro, I was probably Ireland’s best amateur.
So when did Pete tell you the story?
Much later. But after I won in Portugal, he sent me a text: “Not bad for a little fat lad with glasses.” That made me laugh.
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Interesting that he picked you right away.
He’d come for the weekend. Apparently the GUI (Golfing Union of Ireland) officials were all about Rory. But he mentioned me. I bet they were surprised.
What were the positives and negatives of growing up playing alongside Rory?
The pluses are obvious. I got to play with a superstar. And when I was younger playing amateur events, thousands of people used to come and watch.
Because of him. It got me playing in front of big crowds early on. My brother plays a bit at that level now. I go and watch when I’m home and there’s maybe a quarter of the spectators there used to be.
The ‘Rory factor’ stayed for a few years after he turned pro. I remember playing the final of the West of Ireland at Rosses Point. It felt like there were thousands watching, even if it was probably only a thousand or so.
Amateur golf has always been well supported in Ireland. It was all great training for me. At the end of each round we’d speak to the journalists. So when I won the Irish Open as an amateur, I was used to playing in front of big crowds and answering questions afterwards.
The minuses were that I was always living in Rory’s shadow. When I turned pro and even now people in Ireland expect me to be as good as Rory and win lots of Majors. But I have to explain to them that it’s not that easy (laughs).
When did you know that Rory was special?
From when he was 13 or 14. Then he shot that 61 at Royal Portrush in the North of Ireland. That really made people sit up and take notice.
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How would you describe your relationship with Rory?
He and I are good pals, always have been. Rory’s a superstar and, yes, he does keep himself to himself a bit more these days. But I always say, no matter what Jordan [Spieth], Dustin [Johnson] or Justin [Thomas] do, Rory seems to be, in my mind, bigger and more of a draw to people and tournaments.
Was there ever a moment when you thought “I can’t beat this guy”?
No. I had a great chance to win at Wentworth a few years ago. The two of us were in contention and he ended up beating me by a shot. I probably should have beaten him, though. I had a great chance.
I’ve beaten him in the World Match Play. But I’ve never gone head-to-head with him in the last group on a Sunday. I’d love to. There really isn’t anyone I’d fear going up against. I relish going up against the top guys.
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Winning the Irish Open as an amateur must have been huge for your career. You could turn pro when you wanted and you had an exemption ready and waiting for you. So why didn’t you wait to play in the Walker Cup that year?
A few people told me at the time that I would regret not playing in the Walker Cup. But I don’t. And I never will. No disrespect to the Walker Cup, but it’s a two-day amateur event, one I would have had to wait five months to play in. Yes, I would have been invited to pro events during that time, but I needed to get experience of playing for money.
I went to Akron that year for the first time. And I shot something like 20-over par for four rounds. If you had told me that I would win that event some day I would have laughed at you.
But what I learned that first time helped me win later on. Besides, while I had a two-year exemption on the European Tour, if I turned pro right away it was two-and-a-half years. That was a lot to give up. So it didn’t take much thought at all.
Rory actually called me the evening I won the Irish Open and asked me what I was going to do. He gave me some advice. At the age of 19 he was giving out advice. But I have never regretted turning pro right away.
Were you surprised when you won the Irish Open?
I didn’t expect to do it, no. But at the time I don’t think I really knew what I was doing. I genuinely don’t.I was playing loads of golf at the time and so many events in a row. So, this was just the Irish Open.
It was my first time and I was so happy to be playing there. I remember finishing the Irish Amateur – my third event in a row involving 36 holes in a day.
I actually played 36 holes at Royal Dublin on the Sunday before the Irish Open. I finished fifth or sixth. Then I went home that night. My mum was up all night washing my clothes. And I went to Baltray first thing on the Monday morning and played a practice round. That’s how happy I was to be there, playing in my first Irish Open.
I played a few holes with Rory the next day. I’ll never forget, I was three-over par after five holes in the first round. Then I was 18-under for the next 31 holes which is unbelievable.
The weather on the last day was amazingly bad.
That probably helped me. The weather was so bad I wasn’t thinking about anything. I was just trying to stay dry.
I still find it hard to believe I did that as an amateur. I know this is a big, bold statement, but I don’t think it will ever be achieved again. Especially in someone’s national Open. Monty was there. Westwood too. It was a proper field.
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You once called yourself a “big-time player.” Does that stem from what happened at the Irish Open?
I think the bigger the situation you put me in, the better I get. As a golfer you have to be very self-confident. I feel like you can put me anywhere – the first tee or the 18th fairway at the Ryder Cup – and I won’t be phased. That’s what I meant by “big-time player”.
Speaking of which, how important is it for you to play in the Ryder Cup?
Making the Ryder Cup team is one of the big goals for the year. I’ve never played in one, and one of my best friends is the captain. I feel I can provide a couple of points and bring some good spirit to the team room by just being myself.
I play a lot of golf with Padraig, I can only put my best foot forward. If I play to the best of my ability over the next few months, I could make that team and that's my main goal.
If I don't make it, I want to be so close so I make a decision for him. The US PGA (where Lowry played with Harrington and the pair finished T4) was a great start because when they are picking a team they do look at majors, and if you have big finishes that strengthens your case.
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How do you reflect on the 2016 US Open when you let a four-shot lead slip in the final round?
It’s one of those things. I should have won. But there are plenty of top players who have led big events with 18 holes to play and not won. So I’m hardly unique in that. It was a big disappointment and who knows where I would be if I had won?
What did that experience at Oakmont teach you?
I just wasn’t aggressive enough on Sunday. I was playing the best golf of my life. I played three rounds of World No.1 golf. I was seven under for three rounds on the hardest course you could ever play.
On the last day I made a good par at the first. Then, at the second – a par-4 I could have driven – I laid up. I was trying to maintain my lead instead of trying to win the tournament.
But I look back on that week as one of the best experiences of my life. I learned a lot.
I looked at your biography and up popped the Athlone Institute of Technology. What went on there?
(Laughs) Not much. My parents wanted me to go to college. And this one was 20 minutes from my house.
I didn’t do much. I went there for two years, then went to University College Dublin on a golf scholarship. But at the end of January the golf season started and I was off playing in the Spanish and Portuguese Amateurs, the Lytham Trophy – all that stuff.
So no letters after your name?
No. It’s funny actually. My sister is a teacher and has a degree. And my brother has a degree in finance.
On the wall in my parents’ house there are three pictures – them in their gowns and me with the Irish Open trophy. So my degree is okay, too.
You’re on record as saying kids should learn how to play golf rather than how to swing the club ‘properly’. Can you expand on that?
To get kids into the game, you have to make it fun. That’s why little pitch-and-putt courses are so important. If I had been close to one of those as a kid, I’d never have left the place. But now there are too many pushy parents.
I have friends who are coaches who are telling me that all the time. People see the dollar signs. So they want their kids to be great. But if a kid wants to play, then just let them go with a few clubs. Let them go play and have fun and find out what a great game golf is. And if they start to show real promise, get them a bit of guidance from a coach, but the fun side should alwayscome first.
If you get coaching when you are too young and you are standing there beating balls every day, you’re going to get bored. You’ll hate the game because it will feel like work.
When I was a kid I played a lot of golf on my own. I loved being on my own, chipping around the greens and inventing shots. When I chipped in I was the happiest little kid alive.
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The stats mark you out as having one of the best short games on Tour. What’s your secret?
I suppose the main thing for me is just the time and practise I spend on it. From when I was a kid, I spent hours and hours around the chipping green, and that’s kind of where I self-taught myself how to do it.
Still to this day, it’s what I do. Any time I get an hour to go practise, I’ll spend the majority of the time around the chipping green.
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Too many try to make the game a science when it is really an art.
That’s right. On the range at every event I see 30 guys with Trackman devices behind them. I think golf is still an art. That’s how I learned to play the game and how I still play it now.
There are times when I’m not playing great and thinking too many technical thoughts. But if someone asks me how to hit a fade, my artistic side takes over. I think ‘fade’ and hit a fade.
That brings me to equipment. Modern clubs and the ball don’t exactly help you play like that.
No, very true. There is a lot of talk about the golf ball. And I do think I’d do better with the old equipment.
More guys have benefited from the new stuff than have been hurt by it, though. Some guys have caught up with the proper ball strikers. They use their rescue clubs rather than long irons, for example.
And Rory doesn’t get the full benefit of his driving.
No, he doesn’t. If we were using the old equipment, he would be by far the best driver in the world.
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No one plays like Seve any more.
I know what you’re saying. There are no characters like that any more. It’s all so professional. I’m starting to sound like Peter Alliss now (laughs). Guys hit into trouble and chip-out all the time. They never go for the risky shot. Seve would go for those shots. It’s a shame really.
Okay, let’s switch gears. On a typical PGA Tour course what would a scratch player shoot?
He wouldn’t break 80 for sure. Someone asked me recently what a 10-handicapper would shoot at Sawgrass. A few guys thought 95. But there is no chance he’d break 100. No chance.
Scratch golfers don’t get to play courses set up the way we do. Tight fairways. Fast greens. Pins tucked away. If you miss on the wrong side, you’re snookered.
Do you think of yourself as a PGA Tour player more than a European Tour player?
Possibly, yeah. When I won at Akron, I was playing to get my PGA Tour card. When I got it, I decided to play there full time. But I wasn’t having the best time. I was going back and forth and not playing my best golf because I was taking weeks off to go home.
At that point it would have been easy to go back to Europe and play there. But then I thought, do I want to be in Sicily or do I want to be at Quail Hollow? There’s no comparison if you are a competitor.
If I want to compete at the highest level, win big events, win Majors, and have the best career, I have to be in America. It’s the place for me and I do enjoy it there.