PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (AP) — The noise was unlike anything Shane Lowry had ever heard on a golf course, no surprise at the first British Open in these parts in 68 years and an Irishman atop the leaderboard at Royal Portrush.
Lowry didn’t get rattled Saturday. He only got better.
Two straight birdies around the turn to take the lead. Three straight birdies near the end to pull away. An 8-under 63 for his lowest round in a major. A stunning back nine that gave him the 54-hole record in the British Open. A four-shot lead going into the final round.
Walking off the 17th tee, Lowry turned to his caddie and said, “We might never have a day like this on the golf course again, so let’s enjoy this.”
“Honestly, that’s the most incredible day I’ve ever had on the golf course,” Lowry said. “I just can’t believe what it was like.”
It can get a lot better, starting with his name etched on the base of that silver claret jug.
Lowry wasn’t willing to look that far ahead, not with a forecast so dire the R&A moved up the starting times Sunday in an effort to avoid the worst of the heavy rain and 35 mph gusts in the forecast.
“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 took a big step with a 30 on the back nine to break away from the pack for a four-shot lead over Tommy Fleetwood, who had a bogey-free 66 and still lost ground. J.B. Holmes, who shared the 36-hole lead with Lowry, couldn’t keep up. No one could.
Holmes had two straight bogeys on the back nine, didn’t make as many putts as the opening two rounds, but otherwise was solid for a 69.
“It wasn’t like it was terrible,” Holmes said. “But when you’re playing with a guy making everything, it feels like you shot a million.”
The return of golf’s oldest championship to Northern Ireland no longer had favorite son Rory McIlroy. Lowry filled the void just fine.
He was teammates with McIlroy for Irish golf when they won the European Amateur Championship in 2007. Lowry didn’t mind when all the attention was showered on the trio of Ulstermen — McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke — as Northern Ireland embraced such a special week.
“The guys are from here. I grew up four hours away,” Lowry said. “I felt like I could come here and come under the radar. I’m not quite under the radar anymore. I didn’t feel like a forgotten Irishman. But hopefully, I’m the one they’re talking about tomorrow evening.”
Lowry was at 16-under 197, breaking by one the 54-hole record set by Tom Lehman in 1996 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Sunday’s weather had everyone talking at the end of the day. There’s also the chance of an internal storm brewing in Lowry. He chuckled when he looked up at the scoreboard on the 18th green to see his lead at four shots, knowing Oakmont would be brought up.
Lowry also had a four-shot lead going into the final round of the 2016 U.S. Open. He closed with a 76 as Dustin Johnson rallied for his only major. The pressure figures to be even greater this time around as he goes for a silver jug on the Emerald Isle.
Lowry says he learned from that day, how to hang in until the very end. He has matured. He has a family. And he wants to embrace the moment because “who knows when I’ll be in this position again? It’s taken me three years to get back here.”
Fleetwood had his share of support, hugely popular for his long hair flowing out of his cap and his easy nature. He was at 12-under 201, has made only two bogeys through 54 holes and still has to make up a four-shot deficit.
“You have to look at it realistically,” he said. “I had a great day today. I had one of the best rounds of the day and I was bogey-free. Shane just played great and I’m four back. But that’s it. I’m just happy with how I played.”
Still on the fringe of contention was Brooks Koepka, a familiar face in the majors. The PGA champion — a winner in three of the last six majors — he couldn’t get enough putts to fall and still managed a 67. He was seven shots behind, along with Justin Rose (68).
“I’ve hit it as good as I could possibly imagine. I putted the worst in the entire field,” Koepka said. “It’s been really bad. Very frustrating. Disappointed. But thankfully, it’s going to blow tomorrow to have any sort of chance. I need to figure out the putter.”
Koepka wasn’t about to concede anything at Portrush, regardless of the weather. He had a seven-shot lead at Bethpage Black in the PGA Championship, saw the lead shrink to one in a matter of four holes, and won by two.
Rose thought he had done just enough to stay in range. When he finished, Lowry was starting to roll.
The final hour was masterful.
The pin was back right on the par-3 16th known as “Calamity Corner” because it drops off some 50 feet right of the green. Lowry sent his 4-iron right at the flag and onto the green until it settled about 10 feet away. From the light rough to the left of the fairway on the 17th, he hit a perfect chip-and-run to 3 feet for his final birdie.
Even his 25-foot birdie putt on the final hole — with a chance to join Branden Grace as the only players with a 62 in a major — looked good until it turned away.
“Every time I had a putt today, I just wanted to hole it because I wanted to hear that roar,” Lowry said. “It was just incredible. It was an incredible day.”
Now, all that stands between Lowry and the claret jug are 18 holes, tough weather and Sunday pressure with the hopes of an island following him along.
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