Congratulations to Shane Lowry of Ireland, your 2019 Champion Golfer of the Year. This tournament has produced a lot of incredible moments, but sonofabitch, this final walk up 18 will never not give me goosebumps.
Scenes like this are what makes golf so great. The first Open Championship played in Ireland, not just Northern Ireland but the whole island, in 68 years. Sixty. Eight. Years. An Irishman coming down the last with the win basically in hand. The entire island, both literally and figuratively, behind him and cheering him on. It’s hard not to love.
The Open Championship, it’s the oldest major in golf. Contested this year at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. Yes, that’s right, Northern Ireland. For the first time in nearly 70 years, The Open returns to the home of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, and Darren Clarke. The country and its courses were removed from The Open rota due in large part to “The Troubles”, a time of great civil violence that gripped Ireland, and particularly Northern Ireland, from the 1960’s until almost 2000.
The R&A (the governing body of UK golf) waited a long time to bring this tournament back, and it was still something sitting in some minds. Would there be some sort of attempt at violence? Could this be something that draws all Irish folks together? There ended up being nothing to make the news, and by all accounts both the course and city of Portrush knocked it out of the park. So we should almost certainly see another Open here, and hopefully see it expanded to more Irish courses.
The Open is special. It’s the only time of year that a lot of PGA Tour pros will play a true links-style course. Hard ground, tall fescue grass waiting to swallow errant shots, and usually some wind and rain for good measure. It’s played where the game was invented, still in the style of those who invented it. Links golf if different. It’s not about hitting a perfect shot to exactly the right distance and stopping it on a dime. It’s not about hitting driver-wedge every hole, and beating a course to death with length off the tee. A popular phrase related to links golf is “The shot doesn’t truly start until the ball hits the ground.” Courses are usually firm and fast, with undulating fairways and greens, that can lead to amazing (or sometimes terrifying) run-out after landing. There is waist high fescue mere yards from the fairway, waiting to eat errant shots. And when that shit gets wet? Oof.
The Open is about playing golf in conditions that would make 99% of the population quit. It’s flags quaking in 30 mph seaside winds, it’s pot bunkers so deep you need a ladder, it’s raining sideways, but you just gotta push through it. Golf is not a sport for the meek or timid at The Open. It takes a level of resolve that simply isn’t required, or even asked, in most places.
I’ve loved this championship for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid who has spent his entire life in the state of Iowa, it’s been my favorite tournament of the year. I loved it as a kid, watching replays at my grandpa’s house at normal human hours. Marveling at guys like Tom Lehman, Nick Faldo, and Tiger Woods.
But I’ve fallen even more in love with it as an adult. I’ve started waking up early to watch it live, and considering the time difference, it means waking up at midnight and a 90 minute power nap before work. It’s a totally different experience. It feels like golf in a different world, almost an entirely different sport. Before social media, it was kind of a lonely existence. But now, you can hop on Twitter and trade stories with other psychopaths. Bragging about what time you set your alarm, and discussing what you will eventually make yourself for breakfast.
The Open is beautiful, in its own way, but the beastly side won’t hesitate to rip your face off if you aren’t careful. This Open was mostly benign weather-wise until Sunday, but even still, just a small lapse can lead to big trouble.
Thursday we led off with former Open Champion Darren Clarke hitting the first tee shot of the tournament. He makes his home in Portrush, and is beloved by his home country and many around the world. He looked to be holding back tears, and I can’t say I blame him. Even just 10 years ago, The Open coming to Northern Ireland felt unrealistic. Impossible is too strong, but it didn’t exactly seem likely, and we got to see this.
Another homegrown boy was the even more of a focus leading up to the week, Rory McIlroy. Rors actually owns the course record at Royal Portrush, a 61 he shot in an amateur tournament as a 16 year old. This isn’t exactly the same course, as many changes have been made since that time, but he’s been here a bunch and knows most of the course. Unfortunately, things went poorly right from the start, taking a quadruple bogey 8 on the first, and a bogey on 3. Like I said, this tournament will jump up and bite you if you’re not careful. It doesn’t particularly care that you are a national hero. He played well in the middle, shooting -2 from 4-16, but also ended poorly. A bogey on 16 and a triple bogey 7 on the last meant Rory would finish the day at 8 over par.
Tiger Woods also struggled, making only one birdie compared to 7 bogeys, finsishing the day at +6. Phil Mickelson, fresh off his “hard reset” diet where he reportedly lost 15 pounds in just over a week, had a difficult day as well shooting 76 for a +5. Newest major champion, US Open winner Gary Woodland, ground out a +3 round. That left him tied with past Open champions Francesco Molinari and Zach Johnson, as well as Bryson DeChambeau.
A large group got themselves to -1, including Louis Oosthuizen, Patrick Cantlay, Si-Woo Kim, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Jordan Speith, and Henrik Stenson. Dylan Frittelli backed up his win at the John Deere Classic by shooting an opening round 68, to tie with Sergio Garcia, Alex Noren, Jon Rahm, Lee Westwood and Tyrell Hatton.
Brooks Koepka continued his excellent play in majors, also shooting a 68, that included only one bogey. Tommy Fleetwood and Tony Finau were right there too. Shane Lowry got around in 67, after just one bogey at the tenth. JB Holmes topped the leaderboard after day 1, however. Even after a bogey at the first, he wouldn’t make another of those the rest of the day, and went on to shoot a sparkling 5-under 66.
Friday brought more low scores, and more than a little bit of drama. Holmes and Lowry shared the lead at 8-under, with Lowry going around in another 67, while Holmes shot a very solid 68. A pair of Brits were close behind at -7, in Tommy Fleetwood (after a 68-67 first two days), and a surprising appearance from former world #1 Lee Westwood (also 68-67). Westy has had a rough stretch for the last couple of years, but recaptured a little of his early 2010’s magic for a weekend. Koepka (-5), Justin Rose (-5), and Jordan Spieth (-4) were among the group within 3 shots. And lurking just 4 shots back was a group of Matt Kuchar, Tony Finau, Patrick Reed, and Jon Rahm.
The cut line was set at +1, and a few big names didn’t make it. Tiger managed to grind out an even par 70, but finished at +6. Phil also struggled again, with a 3-over 74 Friday, to end his week early at +8. Other notables to miss were Jason Day, Keegan Bradley, and unfortunately Rory McIlroy. Rory provided the most bittersweet Friday, he tied for the best round of the day (a nearly perfect 65, with only one bogey) and set the crowd on fire with 3 straight birdies on 10, 11, and 12. He couldn’t convert two birdie chances on 17 and 18, and as good as it was, it just wasn’t enough. He finished one outside off the cut at +2. After the round, it was clear that missing the cut in his home country was going to hurt. You can see it on his face, and hear it in the slight crack of his voice, that this one isn’t going to be easy to get over. If this doesn’t tug at your heartstrings some, you need to check yourself.
Find the whole video if you can, but that’s a great representation in very short snippet.
Saturday, often referred to as Moving Day on the PGA Tour, was just that. There was movement everywhere. I have to start with Lowry, because my goodness. Starting the weekend tied for the lead, and especially in a major, can be tough. At least, it usually is for most players. Shane Lowry didn’t seem to mind. He put on one HELL of a show. Carding himself a bogey-free, tournament-best, nearly flawless from start-to-finish, 8-under 63. Yes, he started the day at 8-under total, and then he just doubled himself up, ending the day with a 4-shot cushion at -16. It was domination of a course and field like you rarely see. Brooks has made it seem easy for the last 18 months, and Tiger made it look too simple for almost a decade.
Lowry’s 54-hole score of 197 strokes is the lowest in British Open history. This was the 148th verison of The Open, by the way, nearly 150 years of history, and Shane Lowry now stands alone. As if that wasn’t enough, it also tied for the best 54-hole score at ANY major. Ever.
Tommy Fleetwood scored a 66 to move himself into second, at 12-under, behind Lowry. Holmes shot a 69 to hold onto solo 3rd at -10. Koepka and Justin Rose were tied at -9, Fowler and Westwood sat another stroke back at -8, and a group of Rahm, Finau, Speith, and Danny Willett all at -7 lurking just outside striking distance.
Sunday was a party, and everyone knew who the guest of honor was, except for Mother Nature. The morning groups got a bit of a break, but the afternoon groups had to deal with a significant uptick in wind. Tee times for the day were bumped up 2 hours, hoping to miss the weather, and for the most part they did. It wasn’t all sunshine, though. Only 15 players total shot under par, and if you look at only the last 12 groups, that number drops to just 2. Last year’s Open champion, Francesco Molinari, had the round of the day, with a 5-under 66. Moving up 43 spots on a Sunday is usually a very good thing, but he started the day so far back that it only got him to -3 for the tournament.
Patrick Reed shot even par 71 to finish alone in 10th at -4 . After winning the 2018 Masters, and finishing 4th at the US Open as well, Reed has had a disappointing 2019 so far. This will be his only top-10 in a major, and is currently his third-best finish of the year. Tyrell Hatton, Danny Willett, Rickie Fowler, and Robert MacIntyre. Robert is a 22-year old Scotsman who was making his Open debut, and in very impressive fashion.
Koepka and Westwood both had solid outings, tying for 4th at -6, even if their scores don’t show it on the surface. Koepka shot a 3-over 74, seemingly struggling more with playing partner Holmes (and his taking forever to do even basic things like put on a glove) than anything to do with the weather. Westwood shot +2 on the day. Falling short of winning a major again, which has been the story of Westy’s whole career. A strong showing for him here, while good for a little nostalgia kick, won’t mean much if he continues to struggle pretty much everywhere else on tour.
In third place sat Tony Finau, one of only 5 men in the field to shoot all 4 rounds at par or better after finishing with a 71, at -7. He’s made a habit of scoring well at The Open, making the cut in all 4 times he’s played in the event, and back-to-back top 10’s. This week marks his best finish in any major of this year, and is only his 4th top-10 of 2019, after recording 11 finishes in that category last year. After a bit of an up-and-down year, but maybe Finau is rounding into form just as the season starts drawing to a close?
Tommy Fleetwood (-9) finished second, despite being very solid all week, but stood no chance on Sunday in the face of the Lowry Express. It was going to take a Herculean round for the Englishman, and some help from the man in front of him. Unfortunately, Lowry didn’t falter often, and when he did Fleetwood just couldn’t quite get over the hump. He played Sunday in 3-over 74, which is better than it sounds on paper. He was just too far behind, and even though I think his time will come, it just wasn’t meant to be this week. And that’s OK, because he’s got the game to win a few big ones, and the time to let it come together still.
What more can I really say about our winner, Shane Lowry (-16)? All he needed to do was not completely fall apart on Sunday, entering the day with a 4-shot lead. That can still be easier said than done, sleeping on the 54-hole lead of a major is not an easy thing to do. Even guys that do it multiple times will talk about how hard it can be. Your nerves are frayed, your adrenaline starts flowing at 3 AM and your tee time isn’t for another 12 hours. There are stories of guys show up at the course 5+ hours early and get to the range, because they just don’t know what to do for that long. But Lowry, history and emotions be damned, seemed rock-steady all day. In the face of worsening conditions, and 3 bogeys in 4 holes to see his lead (which had grown to 6) shrink back to 4 strokes, he held fast.
This win will probably be remembered more for Lowry’s Saturday, and to a lesser extent Rory’s fun-as-hell, but ultimately futile Friday, but no one can take that final walk up 18 away from Shane Lowry. They also won’t be able to bring back his Sunday night, where in true Irish fashion, he didn’t even change from the course and headed straight to the pub.
Drink up, Shane Lowry, Champion Golfer of the Year. You’ve definitely earned that blackout.