Under slate-gray skies, with a passionate crowd cheering his every swing, Irishman Shane Lowry found something Saturday that no one else could:
Daylight. Glorious daylight.
Lowry distanced himself from the field by shooting a 63 in the third round of the British Open. He masterfully worked his way around Royal Portrush with eight birdies and no bogeys.
With the giddy home crowd serenading him by belting out the soccer anthem “Ole, Ole Ole,” Lowry nearly drained his shamrock-stamped ball on 18 for his fourth birdie in a row. He missed his long putt by an inch. Still, the gallery roared.
Goosebump golf at its finest.
“Honestly, that’s the most incredible day I’ve ever had on the golf course,” said Lowry, 32, bearded and beaming. “I honestly can’t explain what it was like.”
As they walked off the 17th tee, Lowry said caddie Brian “Bo” Martin told him: “`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.”
So crackling was the energy, it felt like the stretch run on a championship Sunday. But it was a Saturday, and Lowry’s work is far from done. He’s at 16 under and leads second-place Tommy Fleetwood by four strokes. Two shots behind Fleetwood is American J.B. Holmes, who has miles of ground to make up despite three rounds in the 60s.
Four shots is a lot, but certainly not insurmountable. Lowry got an excruciating reminder of that three years ago in the U.S. Open at Oakmont. He had a four-shot lead heading into the final round before sputtering to a six-over 76 on Sunday, as Dustin Johnson blew past him for the win.
“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 hang in until the very last minute,” said Lowry, who missed the cut at the previous four British Opens. “You never know what can happen. And I’m going to do the same tomorrow.
“That’s a long time ago,” he continued, later noting he’s a father now. “I don’t think I’m a much different golfer, but I feel like I’m a different person. I think that’s what will help me tomorrow.”
Fleetwood presents a daunting challenge. He has shot one stroke better each day — 68, 67, 66 — and he too is hunting for his first major win.
“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,’ ” Fleetwood said. “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.”
The Sunday forecast is frightening and could cause chaos: rain all afternoon with the possibility of wind gusts up to 40 mph. The R&A moved the start times up an hour in hopes of avoiding the worst of the weather.
“Look, I know tomorrow’s going to be a difficult day,” said Lowry, who’s from Clara, Ireland, a four-hour drive south. “I know there’s some bad weather coming in. But 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.”
Still within striking range of the lead is Brooks Koepka, who is tied with Justin Rose at nine under. Koepka is currently the most dangerous player in golf, with four wins in his past nine majors, plus second-place finishes at this year’s Masters and U.S. Open.
Koepka isn’t worried about the gruesome forecast. In fact, he said, “I need it.”
“Being, what, seven back? Here you need some wind, you need some rain,” he said. “You need anything that can kind of go your way. And that’s got to be an advantage. Especially the way I’m striking the ball. I’ve struck it so good. If it’s going to be windy, you need to be able to strike it good, control your flight, and figure out where you want the ball to end up. If it’s going to blow 30, it can get out of control very quickly.”
For his part, Lowry is happy with the way he’s handled the pressure.
“Honestly, walking from the green to the next tee, the people are literally a yard away from you roaring in your face as loud as they can,” he said. “If you have to get up and hit a drive down a tight fairway, it’s fairly difficult. I thought I dealt with it very well today.”
One more good round, and Lowry will be right there yelling with them.