Sports

Even with a penalty that he called on himself, Shane Lowry leads U.S. Open by two

2016 U.S. Open

Shane Lowry reacts after making a birdie at No 7 during the third round of the U.S. Open.

(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

If Shane Lowry goes on to capture his first major championship in the 116th U.S. Open, a trophy won’t hardly be big enough to hold the respect for him in the golf world. The bearded, big-bellied Irishman will be toasted from Pittsburgh to Dublin.

Lowry will lead the Open at Oakmont Country Club by two shots when he wakes up before sunrise Sunday and goes out to play four more holes in the third round. There’s no telling where he’ll stand when the final round begins later in the afternoon.

He does know this: He has spotted the field one shot.

Lowry did what any golfer is supposed to do. At a critical time in his second round Saturday, as Lowry worked to keep pace with leader Dustin Johnson, he called a penalty on himself.

It was the most inconsequential of errors that can be made on a golf course. Lowry settled his putter behind on the ball on the 16th green, and, unbeknownst to anyone but him, it moved ever so slightly back to touch the putter face.

The change in position of the ball: maybe no more than a couple of dimples.

The damage to Lowry’s possible fortunes: immeasurable.

Lowry did the right thing. He called over the U.S. Golf Assn. official with the group, told him what had happened, and gulped down his medicine: a one-stroke penalty. Lowry quietly stewed, holding the putter behind his neck, and then, somehow gathering himself, he drained an eight-foot putt to save bogey.

“To hole that second putt was massive for me and massive for my whole day,” Lowry said.

Lowry was matter-of-fact about the penalty.

“I had to penalize myself,” he said. “It’s very frustrating in a tournament like that.”

They don’t get bigger than a major, and Lowry has a chance to seize his first. Going into Sunday’s third-round resumption, Lowry stood at five under par, two shots up on American qualifier Andrew Landry, who was through 13 holes.

Three shots behind at two under was a trio that knows something about major championship infamy: Lee Westwood (through 15 holes), Sergio Garcia (through 14) and Johnson (through 13). The three have played in a combined 170 majors without a win.

This is Lowry’s 14th major, with a couple of ties for ninth (including last year’s U.S. Open) as his best finishes.

Lowry, 29, from County Offaly in central Ireland, was all but unknown to the American public until last year, when he captured the 2015 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He already was renowned in his home country for winning the 2009 Irish Open while still an amateur. Lowry has since won once as a pro in Europe, in the 2012 Portugal Masters.

Lowry got his first lead of the tournament at No. 7, where he made his third birdie in a four-hole stretch. When he looked up to see his name on the top of the leaderboard, he said his caddie “had to talk me off my pedestal.

“And then I went ahead and bogeyed the next hole.”

Lowry bounced back with birdies at 9 and 12 to get to three under for the round when play was halted at 8:49 p.m. EDT with nine of the top 20 players on the board still on the course. They were to resume play at 7 a.m. on Sunday.

There are two key players who might have gotten a big break by finishing their third rounds. Jason Day and Branden Grace each fired 66 and got to sleep in. Grace sat at one under, while Day was one over. Day, the world No. 1, was 43rd when the third round started. He had stumbled to a 76 in the first round.

“It may be physically and mentally a little bit tougher on those guys that have to come back and finish in the [morning],” Day said.

Day had a torrid first nine (Oakmont’s back) of 31, making birdies on four of his first five holes. He put up only one red number on the second nine, but it was a big — an eagle after reaching the par-five fourth hole in two shots.

Johnson, who didn’t have to play Saturday morning after going 36 holes Friday, got wild with his driver early in the round, suffered from a couple chipping errors, and had a number of misfires on makeable putts.

A double bogey at the par-four third was particularly painful. Chipping short of the green, Johnson didn’t get the ball up the slope and it rolled back down to him. He chipped again to seven feet and missed.

The longest birdie putt Johnson made was four feet, though he did make a couple of par saves.

“I’m giving myself opportunities,” Johnson said. “I feel like I’m hitting my putts on my line with correct speed. At some point, they will start to go in.”

Defending U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth, starting the third round tied for 35th, looked like he might make a charge similar to Day’s when he drained three birdies in his first four holes. But he could make only one birdie while suffering a double and two bogeys and finished with a 70 that put him nine shots behind Lowry.

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com