The 148th Open: Please pour Port wine in Claret Jug for Shane Lowry at Royal Portrush

The Open Championships can conduct the tournament amongst ten courses on its roster. It was the first time that the Open left UK mainland (England & Scotland) and returned after 68 years to Ireland or Emerald Isle’s Dunluce link course namely Royal Portrush that sits on edges of magnificently beautiful north Antrim Sea Coast.

Sushil Kumar

Photo: Twitter/The Open

Golf game comes closest to mimicking life in encapsulating twists with triumphant turns and tragic tales connected with a round, championship, calendar year or even an entire career:  first the triumph- Shane Lowry, who missed cut in last four Opens, hit a purple patch in round three to clock a record 54-hole lead and then win his first Major by six strokes! An unenviable record as since last fifty years only Tiger Woods, Rory Mckllroy, Oosthuizen have won by more than five shots. Contrasting missed cuts and chance to win US Open three years ago, Lowry admitted that winning the Open was an indeed surreal and an out of body experience. Similar would have been the inner reaction of Holmes, of course, for totally contrasting causes and consequences.

Now the tragedy:  one can only imagine deep despair and harrowing heartbreak of JB Holmes who figured in top three after three days but ended up playing not like a pro but like a club player when he shot 16 over 87 on the final day to end just above three.  Like Tiger Woods, he has had his share of ankle and knee surgeries and was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation that needed brain surgery. The burly Kentuckian would love to return to the US to taste Bourbon and Kentucky fried chicken. Fish and chips and sea simply didn’t suit him.

And just after a month, reigning US Open champion Gary Woodland failed to even make the cut. Even Tiger Woods looked a pale shadow of himself and also missed the cut. For Rory Mckilroy, a native northern Irishman, Royal Portrush was really a port of call to win and celebrate with the port wine in Claret jug- a tradition associated with winning that is now forgotten. But rush of blood on first tee took him to exit gates of Royal Portrush. His first day, first tee shot sent his ball out of bound and him out of championship, by shooting eight over 79. Of course, he displayed abundant talent in second round to recover six stroke deficit but sadly came up short by a stroke to qualify. It was quite a heartbreak for Rory holding a rare record of 16:61 at Dunluce link course of Royal Portrush; he holds the course record of shooting 61 while still a 16-year-old teenager in 2005! As argued in my previous articles, Rory is brilliant while playing in free spirited free flowing way; he himself stated in during last US Open that he needs to have a cushion while going in for final rounds and finds difficulty chasing pack leaders on final day. Others world number one position holders to miss the cut were Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and Adam Scott.

The Open Championships can conduct the tournament amongst ten courses on its roster. It was first time that the Open left UK mainland (England & Scotland) and returned after 68 years to Ireland or Emerald Isle’s Dunluce link course namely Royal Portrush that sits on edges of magnificently beautiful north Antrim Sea Coast. General advice at this year’s Open was don’t rush at Portrush specially on final stretch lest one misses the ultimate joy of pouring and sipping port wine from the Claret Jug.  If undulating layout of the link course, allowing anyone to stand on even ground isn’t enough, frequently changing weather and cold conditions, can turn challenge to collapse. First day had both blustery winds and rains, third day was unbelievably calm for shooting low scores and final day had squally winds of over 30 mph, cold and rain. Sudden gust of wind can cause a disgusting round (Holmes, Rose) drowning your dreams. The weather conditions permitted over hundred pars on various holes on fourth day compared to three times that number on third day. Consider how tough conditions were on Sunday that amongst last 12 groups none finished with par only.

As stated, as in life, one can’t predict continuously challenging conditions of link courses that accentuate challenge posed by the course itself. And for this reason, golf must be having highest ratio of first-time gatecrashers as champions (remember Rich Beem, Shaun Micheel, Ben Curtis and Trevor Immelman coming from nowhere during Tiger dominant era to win, PGA (2002), PGA (2003) the Open (2003) and Masters (2008) respectively).

Despite growing up playing on links courses and winning Irish Open as amateur ten years ago combined with Lowry’s record of missing cuts in last four Opens, the bookies gave him 66/1 odds to win. After third day’s course record equalling 63 ( after course was redone two years ago), Lowry resisted temptation of imitating Max Faulkner in 1951 who signed an autograph as Open Champion just after two rounds. Lowry stated that he resisted running ahead of himself and concentrated to stay in the moment – a key of living in each shot making moment. Lowry’s six shot margin of victory was highest since 2010 Oosthuizen Open victory. Lowry shared similarity with him in surprising everyone with his accurate straight drives specially on third day when he found 17 fairways out of 18. And his one over on final day stands out despite the pressure and the fact that amongst last 12 groups none finished with par.

Shane Lowry shone with exquisite stroke-making on the third day by shooting eight under. Not once Lowery lowered his tempo to let go of the momentum especially seen in the way he attacked 16th hole known as the calamity hole specially on the third day (very beautiful and comparable to iconic 7th hole of the Pebble Beach, 12th at Augusta Masters and Island Grass 17th at TPC Sawgrass).  On Sunday, Lowry birdied the  4th  5th   and 7th   but  made the deficit  up by three bogeys in next 6 holes to end with the final score of -15. 

In fact, as rounds go, two rounds – one played by Rory on second and by Lowry on third- gave an immeasurable edgy thrill to spectators for which golf is renowned for; it was similar to shootouts seen on final stretch on a final day at many Majors.

Koepka continues to show Tiger like dominance in Majors and appears to almost win every time he tees off in Majors. He’s won four of the last nine he’s played in and came in the top six at three others. Koepka’s record of 2-1-1-2 in last four Majors got broken by four consecutive bogeys on first four holes on the final day. It’s just that his putter partook of cold conditions and went cold on last two days with birdies chances going unutilised. He has now joined the exclusive elite club of Nicklaus, Tiger, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth to finish in top five in four majors of a calendar year.   He couldn’t fulfill his declared wish to make his Portrush native caddy Ricky Elliott famous by winning the Open for him.

On first day, Graeme McDowell’s   transition from 3 under to 2 over in last three holes again reminded all about how golf can be as fickle as the weather around link courses. His two statements were interesting ; one about finding new rule of three minutes time limit for finding lost ball as too quick and earlier five minutes as two long.Second was about that sinking feeling after finding the lost ball just seconds over three minutes deadline ( he stated that ship feels like it is sinking) . Mercifully, he bounced back the next day though like Rory he flirted with realistic threat of missing the cut on second day.

Now about other players: Francesco Molinari shot the best score of 66 on final day yet his expression and demeanor didn’t demonstrate any deviation displayed last year; Same calmness, equanimity and a faint smile was evident. Of the four woodies, two (Tiger Woods and Woodland) couldn’t land their wood shots at selected spots though the other two (Fleetwood and Westwood) hit their woods well to contend (even shared lead on the third day) but faltered and finally came up short. Tiger ended tied 144 in field of 156 and missed the cut for only the second time in Majors, spoiling the percentages of having the highest strike rate in winning Majors. Mickelson looked better with fasting based weight loss programme but couldn’t add weight to his performance.

Justin Rose was just-in with a rosy chance on Saturday but may have realised on Sunday that in life there is no justice and playing golf is no bed of roses; last year he birdied a twenty footer to make the cut and ended as runner up. His last day score would scorch his mind and soul for some time to come. Koepka, Fowler Rose and Westwood all chased but each came apart chasing (like other players did while pursuing Tiger Woods at his peak) as pressure was too much to make up the deficit left by a brilliant round of Lowry.

The heartbreak for the burly bearded J.B. Holmes can’t be worded ; one can only imagine his harrowing heartbreak  as he figured in top three days ( jointly led after 36 holes) but  on the fourth day ended playing not as pro but as  a club golfer when he shot 16 over 87,  just three above from the bottom three ( could be called as a curse of three which Indians instinctively believe) and would count as an illustrative case of an ignominious collapse. After all blustering winds shook his sails to shattering shipwreck. This was his closest call to come close to claiming a major championship. Last time Holmes led the field was in PGA championship 2008 but there he went over and shot 81 to sink his ship.   If it be of some help, Holmes can take consolation from David Duval, former world number one and the Open Champion who shot worse than him on the first day (20 over) and yet manage to smile, At least, Holmes can go home after that round as Duval couldn’t disappear the next day.

Rory rare record of 16:61 at Royal Portrush got a royal drubbing and his missing the cut destroyed his golden run of top five consecutive finish at the Open though he earned some honour for staging a fightback that would have made history.

Jon Rahm captured second Irish Open at Lahinch Golf Club  by shooting 62 just two weeks ago and had won  at Portstewart two years ago; the word  had hint of regal Rahm ruling the Royal Portrush. His winning record is comparable to Tiger Woods in first two years of professional career. He was tied 3 at US Open at Pebble Beach this year and was runner up at Andalucía Masters at Valderrama. He is always in contention at the Majors but his aggressive muscular style of play and passionate involvement sometimes creates slight slide, costing championship. Ricky Fowler again played like he always does at Majors much in the mould of Mickelson till he broke the jinx by winning the Masters. One feels that the moment of Rahm and Ricky winning the Major is just round the bend. Spieth continues to contend and ascend in Major Championship. He is a soft spoken mild mannered guy who at times can’t be ruthless to the layout and the ball. He continues to play in the mould and manners of Matt Kuchar and Steve Stricker. For the first time,  though Xander Schauffele contended in first two rounds, his Tom Kite like consistent performance in most tournaments couldn’t come off. Tony Finau continued to contend , came third and is knocking on doors of a Major victory. Tommy Fleetwood gave it all and came runner up; one can only watch when a player like Lowry is scorching the course record. At least he didn’t wilt and would bounce back.

After Lowry hit the high gear on third day, the nationalist euphoria and bellicose chants by golf galleries of Ole Ole Ole ranting the air took one to football stadium fervour and feel and a bit to the Ryder Cup final holes’ hysteria seen specially in recent times.

Golf must be credited with fostering unity amongst  Northern Ireland as it hailed and warmly embraced Lowry as the champion golfer of the year. None asks any of the six Irishmen who won Majors whether they were Catholics or Protestants/ Unionists or Republicans. In the past Ireland has often witnessed polarised positions (Catholic vs Protestant or Unionist Vs Republicans) and other divisive issues like right to abortion; country held a nation-wide referendum for constitutional amendment allowing abortion in May last year. There is an Indian connect there- people chanted Savita, Savita!” after the nation voted in favour of abortion – a dentist dying of sepsis in 2012 after being refused abortion despite protracted miscarriage.  Other Indian connection was Shubhankar Sharma shot three under on final day and was tied for 51st.

Summing up one can say that Shane Lowry shone and won due to his grit, gumption, grinding, guts to hold ground and topping that with a grin all through his rounds. In contrast, watching gutted dreams of JB Holmes was gut wrenching specially after knowing that it was a déjà vu for him. But that is golf and that is life.

The author is an avid fan of films and sports. He writes on cultural events like theatre and music occasionally. He also does book reviews and writes on the subject of Disaster Management. As a professional, he belongs to Indian Administrative Service and presently serving as Additional Secretary with the Government of India.