Let’s leave the Nike-Rory post mortems aside for a moment and let Shane Lowry take a bow for a potentially career-changing desert triumph that was born on a golf course in the Irish midlands.
After chipping in for winning birdies at the 11th and 12th and making an incredible eagle three at the 13th to go from two down to two up in the space of eight enthralling holes, the 25-year old from Clara in Co Offaly held on to beat world No 1 McIlroy one up.
And he did it with a gutsy sand save at the last, calmly slotting a four footer in the gathering gloom to put the finishing flourish to a day of shock results in the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson.
“I didn’t make enough birdies in the end,” McIlroy said. “Shane had a nice little stretch around part of the back nine. I hung in there, but I just didn’t do enough. I guess the 12th hole was a big turning point, I thought.”
McIlroy’s defeat and a 2 and 1 loss for Tiger Woods against Charles Howell III has left some observers declaring the WGC-Accenture Match Play dead in the water with the top two seeds beaten in the opening round for the first time since 2002. Maybe it is for US TV audiences, but a lot of Irish golf fans will beg to differ.
As Cinderella stories go, Lowry’s win epitomised all that is good about this maddening game. And while it was disappointing from an Irish viewpoint that the Holywood star McIlroy has now ‘failed’ in his first two events with Nike clubs in his hands and faces even scrutiny about his move, he’s been in tighter spots before and answered his critics with a couple of resounding eight-stroke Major wins.
Any parent who watches their child spend hours alone chipping and putting and worries they might not be getting the most out of life would do well to pay attention to the Lowry story.
“I always used to go and play golf on my own, bring a bag of balls with me and stand around the greens in a quiet corner of Esker Hills, chipping away on my own for hours,” Lowry said as he sauntered away from his post-round media interview and headed back to the ranch to reflect on his win.
“I would be quite content doing that. It’s how I lived my whole youth, until I was 17 or 18. While all my good pals were going out to discos, I used to stay at home on a Saturday night so I could get up early on a Sunday morning to go and play golf. That’s all I ever wanted to do.
“Even now I prefer standing up there on the short game area to down here on the range. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it.”
His short game skills brought him an epic win in the 2009 Irish Open as an amateur. But while he was giddy with excitement after that sensational playoff victory over Robert Rock at Co Louth almost four years ago, he tried hard to keep his emotions in check last night after another sensational short game display proved too much for McIlroy, a good friend.
“Deep down I knew I could beat him.”
Familiarity saved him.
“I said, it was much easier for me to play against Rory than it would have been playing against Tiger, purely because I just know Rory so well,” Lowry said. “I had dinner with him last night or the night before, just stuff like that. I know him so well, and we’ve been good friends for years. That was quite easy. It was quite easy that way, but still quite nerve racking on the first tee.
“I said to my caddie walking down one of the holes, it’s a bit of a circus. The amount of people inside the ropes is not what I’m used to. I’m just thrilled to get the win….
“It’s definitely a day I’m going to remember. And I will, I’m sure, after a few weeks or a couple of months I will slag Rory over it. But at the end of the day, it’s only the first round.
“I’ve got a match tomorrow I need to focus on. As I said earlier, I’m not here to make up the numbers, I’m here to do well, and I’m looking forward to getting out there tomorrow and getting down to business and hopefully getting another win under my belt.”
A run to the quarter-finals would be enough to catapult the world No 64 into the world’s top 50 and the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in a fortnight.
And while he’s entered the Monday qualifier for next week’s Honda Classic in an attempt to win a place in Miami, and potentially the Masters, he’d like to take advantage of this opportunity.
Having scraped into the field by the skin of his teeth and then avoided a daunting showdown with Woods, Lowry knew he had a chance against his former Irish amateur team mate.
“I think it was a bit of a banana skin for him it ended up being,” Lowry said. “It was always going to be tough for him being the world No. 1 no matter who he plays against, no matter if it’s me or anyone else. Because anyone going out to play against Rory is going out to beat him because he’s the best. Thankfully I came out on the right side of it today…”
Lowry knew that all the pressure was on McIlroy after that missed cut in Abu Dhabi on his Nike debut a month ago. And in the end, it took its toll in a match that was replete with errors but hardly lacking in entertainment value.
“I handed him a few holes early doors, but he handed me a few back later on in the round,” Lowry said of the three consecutive bogeys from the second that handed McIlroy a facile, two up lead. “And this is match play, and I got a few breaks where I needed them, and I’m just fortunate to win.”
The world number one had a chance to go one up at the first but missed a six footer for birdie after a laser-like three wood and a superb approach.
The Holywood star then took the 564-yard second with a par-five when Lowry was forced to hack out of the right rough and then failed to get up and down after pulling his 214-yard third well left, missing a 15 footer for a half.
McIlroy appeared to have opened the door at the 179-yard third when he pushed his tee shot into the lake that guards the green.
But Lowry inexplicably followed him into the water and after McIlroy had holed an 11 footer for a bogey, he had to knock in a four footer just to remain one down.
McIlroy then took the fifth in par to go two up when Lowry failed to get up and down from left of the green.
But the Ulsterman missed the par-three sixth to the right, failed to make the putting surface in two and ended up taking a double bogey five to see his lead cut to just one hole.
Lowry then levelled the match with a fine birdie from four feet at the next, where McIlroy overshot the green from 175 yards.
A brilliant Lowry chip at the eighth yielded a conceded birdie four before McIlroy superbly chipped in from the fringe for a half to remain all square.
He lost the ninth to a par to go one down but won the 10th in par and then chipped in from just off the front of the 11th and from under the grandstand at the 12th for birdies to go from one down to one up.
“I said to Darren, my caddie, walking down 11 or 12, he’s not liking this one bit,” Lowry said. “He’s the one under pressure, I’ve got nothing to lose, so let’s have a go from here.”
On cue, Lowry hit a 258-yard five wood to three feet at the 13th to set up a winning eagle three. McIlroy knew he was in trouble but came up just short coming down the stretch.
While Lowry handed him the 14th by three-putting for bogey from nearly 60 feet, McIlroy returned the favour by making a mess of the short par-four 15th.
“I knew he was going to be under pressure coming down the stretch, especially when I was a couple up,” Lowry said. “That’s why I was quite annoyed at myself that I handed him 14. I can’t really afford to do that against him, that’s what I thought.
“But he obviously felt the pressure. I mean, everyone feels the pressure. It’s the world match play at the end of the day, and everyone that’s here deserves to be here, and no one is going to be an easy match.”
Two down again with just three to play, the world No 1 won the 16th with a birdie two from eight feet. But Lowry’s short game proved to be the difference in the end.
Facing an “impossible” chip from the back of the 17th after McIlroy hand brilliantly two putted from 52 feet for par, the Clara man nonchalantly chipped to three and a half feet and saved par to remain one up.
“Yeah, it was a very difficult chip shot,” Lowry said. “But the minute I got up to the ball, I saw where I wanted to land it, and I managed to execute it perfectly, which was nice. I definitely didn’t want to have a putt to stay one up going down 18, so it was nice not to give up that hole.”
With light running out, the possibility of extra holes crossed Lowry’s mind but he snuffed out McIlroy’s hopes of a Friday morning jaunt down the 19th with some more short game magic.
After driving into sand, he found the greenside trap on the right with his second. McIlroy followed him in but almost holed out for birdie, leaving his bunker shot on the edge of the hole.
Lowry had to get up and down for victory and did just that by splashing out to four feet and then holing the putt.
“Momentum in matchplay his huge and I managed to make a couple of great up and downs and a couple of chips that were massive and won me the match,” he said.
As for McIlroy, the game’s top player hit 11 of 18 greens and 10 of 14 fairways. If he was disappointed in anything, it was his iron play. A concern? Perhaps.
“I’ve just been missing a lot of them right, just getting ahead of it,” he said. ” I think it’s more a timing thing than anything else. Everything else was actually pretty good out there. I just need to go and work on them.
“I probably would have lost by more if I had played someone else in the field. It wasn’t a great quality match. But it would have been nice to get through and just get another day here and another competitive round under my belt. I’ll go and practice over the weekend and get ready for next week at the Honda.
“I’m hitting the ball so much better off the tee, which is a huge positive. I’m more comfortable with everything around the greens.
“It’ll be nice to go play a tournament next week and then Doral, as well. Yeah, obviously disappointed I didn’t get to play a little more golf this week, but I’ll practice over the weekend.”