Irish Open hero Shane Lowry has big game on his mind at Leopard Creek.

The Offaly ace tees off the 2010 European Tour season in the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa on Thursday.

But rather than the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo roaming the nearby Kruger National Park, he’s gunning for the world ranking points and more dates with top cat Tiger Woods.

After playing in the same events as Woods twice this year, Lowry said: “I’ve seen Tiger hitting balls in the World Golf Championships in Akron and China. It’s where you want to be, playing in the Majors and all the big events.

“I went five under after 11 in Shanghai and my name was on the leaderboards and Tiger’s name was underneath it. That was something special, another step. It was such a good feeling”

Ranked 138th in the world since capturing the Irish Open as an amateur last May, Lowry reckons he’s gradually taking his game to a new level and he’s desperate for another taste of the big time.

He explained: “Since I turned pro I think every part of my game has come on in leaps and bounds. At the start of it I felt a bit out of depth out there because the courses were tougher and longer. 

“But in the last two months I’ve been shooting some really low numbers and it’s just a matter of putting four low rounds together now."

Lowry finished a massive 32 shots behind Woods in the Bridgestone in Akron but improved to come home 25th behind world No 2 Phil Mickelson in the HSBC Champions three months later.

Recalling his baptism of fire in Akron, he said: “The course was just unbelievably tough and I wasn’t playing well at all that week. 

“I was hitting it in the trees and you have to chip out and you’re hitting it into tiny greens and it was like putting on glass. It was totally new to me and I didn’t know how to deal with it.”

He has missed nine of 18 cuts since he turned professional but slowly he’s starting to find his feet and he’s already set his sights on a stellar 2010.

Third in the Japan tour’s Dunlop Phoenix Tournament last month, he’s working hard on his game and even harder on his fitness with former Ireland and Lions flanker Eric Miller.

He also believes he can close the gap on pal Rory McIlroy over the next three years and make the world's top 50.

He said: “Rory’s one of the best players in the world at the minute and that’s what I want to be. I don’t see myself there yet, but hopefully I will be.

“When Rory finished third in the Dunhill a few years ago, I remember thinking, ‘I know he’s better than me, but I’m not that far behind him.’ 

“I make enough birdies every week to win a tournament and I’m just trying to make as few bogeys as possible. It’s all about experience.”

As an amateur, Lowry couldn’t bank the €500,000 Irish Open prize money but he’s picked up over €220,000 since he turned pro and knows that there is more to come if he continues to improve his game.

Setting out his stall, he said: “I don’t really write down my goals but obviously next year, The Race to Dubai would be a decent enough goal. Anything else would be a bonus.

“I’d like to see myself in maybe two or three years time in the top 50 in the world. From playing in those two WGC’s, you realise that they are the tournaments you want to be playing all the time.”

Lowry will be sponsored in 2010 by Teligence, who are specialists in the provision of implementation services to the telecommunications, data, wireless and broadcast industries.