PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — The chants rolled across the fairways and down to the sea. “Ole, ole, ole, oh-lay.” An Irishman was leading the British Open, the first one held on Irish soil in 68 years. Shane Lowry’s countrymen were shouting their glee.
Sure this is Northern Ireland, part of the United Kindom, and the 32-year-old Lowry is from the Republic of Ireland, but that doesn't seem to make a difference at this historic event.
To the citizens on either side of the border, an Irish golfer is an Irish golfer. To the fans swarming over the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush, a course properly green after several mornings of rain, this was as good as it gets, even though the 148th Open has one round to play, and the weather forecast was a bit dire.
Lowry shot an 8-under par 63 on Saturday and with a record Open 54-hole score of 197, an amazing 16-under par, he established a four-stroke lead going into Sunday’s final round.
Tommy Fleetwood, the Englishman who was second in the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, is second in this one at 201 after a 66 that would be considered wonderful it not three shots higher than Lowry’s round.
J.B. Holmes, tied with Lowry after two rounds, is at 203 after a 69. Brooks Koepka, winner of four majors including the 2019 PGA at Bethpage Black and the 2018 Open at Shinnecock, is tied with 2013 U.S. Open winner Justin Rose at 204,
Lowry had eight birdies and no bogeys as he pulled away from a tie with Holmes, Fleetwood and Lee Westwood.
“It was awesome to see — and to be able to play like that in front of this crowd,” said Holmes, paired with Lowry in the final twosome of the round.
“Happy for him. He played awesome”
Lowry, who finished second to Dustin Johnson in the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, was no less enthusiastic about his play.
“That’s the most incredible day I’ve had on a golf course,” said Lowry. “I honestly can’t explain what it was like.”
It he can’t, who can? He shot 33-30 on the 7,300-yard, par 71 course that was strengthened for the Open. But a combination of highly skilled golfers, excellent course conditions and no weather to speak of have rendered the track vulnerable.
“I can’t imagine it was quite difficult for J.B. to play with me,” said Lowry, “but yeah I found it OK anyway.”
A lead is never safe in golf. You can lose strokes or gain them even before teeing off. While you’re warming up the other guy can make three bogeys. Or three birdies. As a wary but happy Lowry is aware, particularly with rain and wind in the forecast.
“Look I know (Sunday) is going to be a difficult day,” said Lowry. "I know there’s going to be some bad weather coming in. But look, I’m in good position.”
Is that an understatement? For sure brilliant rounds rarely are followed by another brilliant round, but unless Lowry falls apart, which is doubtful, he’s in great shape.
Koepka was as bewildered as Lowry was delighted.
“Nobody’s hit it better than me this week,” said Koepka. “I’ve hit it as good as I could possibly imagine; I putted the worst of the entire field.
“It’s going to blow (on Sunday) so for me to have any chance I have to figure out the putter.”
Lowry doesn’t need to figure out much of anything to play as smoothly as he did Saturday, effortlessly, confidently.
“There’s no point in saying to go out and enjoy myself tomorrow because it’s going to be a very stressful and very difficult day,” Lowry said. “I’m going to take the bad shots on the chin and I’m going to take the good shots and try to capitalize on that. I’m just going to be myself and play my game and see where it leaves me.” He was pleased not only with his play but the control of emotions. Sometimes a golfer on a roll will get carried away with his own success, the syndrome of “I can hit it any place I choose.”
Lowry came to prominence when he won the Irish Open in 2009 as an amateur, and did it in harsh conditions the final day. He said the highly partisan crowd on Saturday did not distract him from his job. “I dealt with it very well today. Honestly, walking from green to tee, the people literally a yard away from you, roaring in your face as loud as they can.
"I grew up four hours away, I kind of felt like I was under the radar a little bit. But, obviously I’m not quite under the radar anymore.”
Obviously. Ole, ole, ole.