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A Triumphant Return

The Open Championship made a triumphant return to Ireland after a 68-year hiatus with the 148th edition of the game’s oldest Championship at Royal Portrush

The last time golf’s most venerable test was contested at Portrush in 1951, a relatively sparse crowd of 8,000 watched colorful Englishman Max Faulkner claim the only Major title of his career.

A record 190,00 patrons’ badges were sold this week.

Four Irishman have been credited with the return of Royal Portrush to the Open Rota; 2010 U.S. Open winner and Portrush-born, 2014 Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke (who has adopted the Club as his home course), two-time Open winner Padraig Harrington and Ireland’s favorite golfing son, Rory McIlroy.

McIlroy has arguably played some of the best golf of his career in 2019 and the four-time major winner was the prohibitive favorite to capture his 3rd Claret Jug at the course he famously shot a course record, 61 at, when he was just 16 years old. 

But you cannot script golf and the 30-year-old Ulsterman started his day with a disastrous quadruple-bogey 8 on his opening hole. He fought back gamely to be only 3-over after 15 holes before disaster struck again with a four-putt double bogey on the par-3 16th followed by an even more destructive triple-bogey on his last hole to record an 8-over par 79.

That was just one shot worse than Tiger Woods who struggled to a 78, which matched Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson who carded a 77. It was the first time in the 82 Majors that both Woods and Mickelson had played in, that they missed the cut. Although the Championship had lost a lot of its superstar power early, there were plenty of marquee names that would still be a part of the story. And what a story it would prove to be.

American J.B. Holmes was best on the day with a superb 5-under 66 that saw him one shot clear of Irishman, Shane Lowry. They led a pack of 14 players at 3-under who included Brooks Koepka (looking for his 5th Major in his last 9 starts) and a bevy of the game’s best including Sergio Garcia, Tony Finau, Tommy Fleetwood and Jon Rahm.

Also, on that number was 46-year old Englishman, Lee Westwood, who has been the #1 ranked player in the world and for the longest time carried the hated mantle of “best player never to have won a Major” (the affable Nottinghamshire man has 18 top 10 finishes in Majors). Perhaps he too could find the magic like his good friend Clarke who won his only Major in the twilight of his career (the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. Georges).    

After the second round the redoubtable Holmes was the co-leader of the Championship at 8-under with Ireland’s great hope, Lowry. They were one ahead of Fleetwood and Westwood with Australia’s Cameron Smith, South African Justin Harding and English star, Justin Rose a further stroke behind at 6-under.

Four players were at 5-under including Koepka, South African Dylan Frittelli and Americans Andrew Putnam and superstar Jordan Spieth.

The round of the day though was authored by McIlroy who shot a brilliant 6-under 65 that left him one excruciating shot from making the cut. It was nonetheless an unbelievably resolute display by McIlroy which will be remembered with reverence by all who were witness to it and an entire country of adoring compatriots. Great victories do not always come with a trophy.  

The players were greeted by perfect conditions for scoring in Saturday’s third round as the wind stayed calm. It was an open invitation to attack a relatively tame Royal Portrush and the players took full advantage of an almost perfect day off the Irish Sea.

First amongst those was the overnight co-leader Lowry who played as if he was impervious to the situation carding an extraordinary course record 63. It was the ninth 63 in Open history and gave the 32-year old from Clara (180 miles south of Portrush) a four-shot lead over Fleetwood heading into Sunday’s final round.

Lowry’s three-day total of 16-under was the lowest 54-hole score in Open history but this was not Lowry’s first 4-shot lead heading into Sunday of a Major. In 2016, he took the same command into the last round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont before faltering and finished in a tie for second behind Dustin Johnson https://www.birdgolf.com/redemption/

Lowry first burst onto the main stage when he won the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009, and although a very accomplished professional (he won the WGC Bridgestone event in 2016), he has spent much of his career in the shadows of his more celebrated Northern Irishmen.

In third place at 10-under was Holmes followed by Koepka and Rose a further shot back at 9-under. Fowler and Westwood were at 8-under with Spieth, Rahm, Finau and 2016 Masters Champion, Danny Willett one stroke behind them at 7-under.

The forecast for Sunday’s’ finale however was an ominous one calling for high winds and heavy rains and it has already been recorded how quickly a player can lose shots on these storied links.

And the forecast was correct rendering a vastly different test for the players.   

Lowry weathered the storm to increase his lead to six shots over Fleetwood after opening with an even par 36 on his front 9. With more heralded players falling away in the groups ahead of the final twosome, the open had become a two-man race.

When Fleetwood stumbled with a double-bogey on the par-4 14th hole and Lowry birdied the 15th, the lead was once again six, and the last three holes became a procession. A coronation before an adoring public and an entire nation.

Lowry made pars on his final three holes to claim a 6-stroke victory over Fleetwood. Finau recorded his highest ever finish in a Major in third place at 7-under with Westwood and Koepka (who became only the fourth professional to finish in the Top 4 of all the Majors in one year) a shot behind in a tie for 4th at 6-under.

This was a transcendent win in so many ways and a dominant performance by a country’s favorite son.

Irish eyes aren’t smiling; they are having a party that could last a while.