Lowry hits the road with high hopes

Lowry hits the road with high hopes
Shane Lowry is back on the road for the next month. Beneath the laid-back exterior lurks a fierce competitor. Picture courtesy  www.shanelowrygolf.com

Shane Lowry is back on the road for the next month. Beneath the laid-back exterior lurks a fierce competitor. Picture courtesy www.shanelowrygolf.com

It’s easy to dismiss Shane Lowry as the beefy country boy who’s so laid-back he’s almost horizontal. After all, it’s an image he’s done little to shoot down since he made headlines worldwide by winning the 2009 Irish Open as an amateur. Yes, he's fun-loving and relaxed and admits to being “borderline lazy.” Yet there’s far more to the 26-year old Offaly man than meets the eye. He has an inner steel and determination that are the hallmarks of a champion. In truth, he’s more grizzly bear than teddy bear.

After four and a half seasons on the European Tour, Lowry is waiting patiently at the crossroads that separates the European Tour herd from the elite that make up the world’s Top-50. Following a disappointing last few weeks of 2013, he heads to Abu Dhabi for his first start of 2014 as the 27th best golfer in Europe, patiently waiting for the chance to make move into the Top-50, which would open the doors to Augusta National and make a Ryder Cup debut a truly attainable goal.

Striking a balance between being a loveable but indolent European Tour “character” and an elite athlete capable of taking on the best in the world is the big challenge for Clara’s favourite son. He’s already taken steps to improve his fitness, not out of any desire to have a washboard stomach but because he’s suffered a few injury “niggles” this season and knows that longevity is key in this game. 

Shane Lowry in action during last year's Open Championship at Muirfield. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

“It is sort of like slow and steady wins the race,” he says of his progress as a professional when he met at last October's Portugal Masters. “I am very happy with the way I am going. I am a fairly easygoing type of fella and happy to be out here competing and I want to do well. I get frustrated at times that I could do better than I do but if I look at it in that sort of way, my four years have been four years of progression every year.”

You don’t win twice on the European Tour without being extraordinarily talented but Lowry, like every other top player, has enough competitive fire inside him to fuel his rise to the top. 

“That’s it exactly,” he says of the misconception that he somehow lacks grit. “I am never happy unless I win. Obviously you are happy if you shot 65 to finish fifth or something but the likes of the Alfred Dunhill Links, it’s a great buzz being up there but I was a bit down most of the week because I didn’t win. I was absolutely devastated that I didn’t even get a playoff

“People at home look at that week and say, ‘Well done Shane, great going.’ And it is great - I got a €200,000 pay cheque - but I don't look at it that way. I don’t really. The only good thing I look at is good world ranking points and Race to Dubai points.” 
Winning in your first European Tour start raises the bar but Lowry has welcomed the added expectation. He credits his inner circle - coach Neil Manchip, caddie Dermot Byrne and his agents at Horizon Sports Management - for keeping him focussed on his goals when times are tough. The rest comes from the competitive spark within him.

Shane Lowry signs an autograph for a young fan at the 2013 WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club. Picture: Eoin Clarke  www.golffile.ie

Shane Lowry signs an autograph for a young fan at the 2013 WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club.
Picture: Eoin Clarke www.golffile.ie

“At the start it was tough with people’s expectations and I was only young and immature. You nearly remember the bad days more than the good days and I recall being in my hotel room in Firestone after shooting 16 over after two rounds in the Bridgestone and I remember asking myself, am I good enough at all. But you have to keep trucking on. 

“I was just very lucky that I had good people around me at the time and still do because they are the same people. I was very lucky that they were there to pull me through and give me a kick up the arse and say you are good enough, just keep at it and maybe work a little bit harder. 

“Even when I was playing amateur golf, I was never happy if I wasn’t doing well and contending. Playing for Ireland, I was never happy unless I was playing No 1. I remember playing Home Internationals at Muirfield and they played me at No 5 all week and I played awful because I just wanted to be at No 1. I wanted to play the best and I wanted to be the best. That’s the way I was and that is the type of person I am.”

Bridging the gap between his current status and the heady heights achieved by major winners Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell will require something special over the next few months if Lowry is to have a realistic chance of contending for a place in Paul McGinley’s Ryder Cup team. 

Comparing himself with McIlroy’s otherworldly talent is a recipe for constant disappointment but in World Cup partner McDowell, he sees a model professional who knows how to get the very best out of himself.

 Shane Lowry at the BMW International Open in Munich in his rookie season of 2010. Picture Fran Caffrey / www.golffile.ie

“I got Dermot on the bag nice and early and he wasn’t too long before telling me how good I was,” Lowry says, sipping a Diet Coke on a hotel couch ahead of what turned out to be an ill-fated defence of his Portugal Masters title [he missed the cut]. “Most golfers have egos as well and you just feed the ego. Dermot keeps telling me how good I am and I am not going to tell him to stop. I like hearing it. 

“It’s important to have people around you that put you in the right frame of mind. I see some people that are knocking around with other people and I feel like if they maybe knocked around with the right people they would do better. That’s why I like Graeme McDowell. I am not using Graeme for that but if you want to learn something as a pro golfer, you should look at Graeme McDowell. He is your pure professional golfer. 

“Graeme’s down time is his down time but when he gets to a tournament, he does his work. When he is at home he does a little bit of work as well. I think he has a life outside of golf too, so I think he’s just to me, he’s your model pro.”

Being around former stablemate McIlroy is also a plus though it is not always good for your ego, as Lowry discovered when he played practice rounds with the Holywood star before his 2011 US Open victory at Congressional.

“I couldn’t believe how good he was and I was playing well at the time,” Lowry recalls. “When I came off the course, I went back to the house and I remember saying to Graeme, ‘I have to stop playing practice rounds with him when he is playing well.’

"You walk off feeling inferior really and you are trying to play against him that week. He was just how long and straight he was hitting it and how under control he had his golf ball. He obviously doesn’t have that now. But as I have said to everyone, I have no doubt that he will come out all guns blazing next year.”

Lowry’s own game has improved year on year to the extent that he believes he’s now a far better player than he was when McIlroy sapped his confidence during those US Open practice rounds.

Shane Lowry at the 2013 DP World, Tour Championship, Dubai. Picture: Denise Cleary www.golffile.ie

“Absolutely chalk and cheese,” he says of the difference in his game. “I think from 18 months to two years ago it is chalk and cheese. For some reason, I don’t know where I got it from, maybe it is from continually playing and consistently getting better and better, but I have become 20 yards longer with the driver and probably 10 to 15 yards longer with each club. 

“This time last year my seven iron was going 170 yards, this year it is going 180. I can’t put my finger on where I got it but I think it is just from doing my own thing, going out and hitting balls when I need to, going to play golf when I need to and getting my set up right and getting confidence in my own ability as well. 

“But at the end of the day I just have to try and concentrate on the job in hand. The thing is, without getting ahead of myself, if you could sneak a win in the next few months, you are a long way there. 

“But I am not thinking about that. That was one of the things going through my head on the Sunday evening after the Dunhill. That was a lot of Ryder Cup points that I - not threw away - but didn’t make. I made a good few as well but to be honest, I need to be Top 50 in the world or to have a big finish in a huge tournament.”

Lowry recently relaunched his website, which was produced by award winning agency Atomic Sport. Lovingly designed, it features a selection of pictures of Lowry on a road trip with his closest friends - surfing off Doolin, playing hurling in Spiddal, driving bumper cars, laughing… It’s a tourism PR executive’s dream website.

The strap line reads: “Fiercely proud of where I come from. Grateful for the life I lead.”

Shane Lowry plays some pitch and putt with his friends. Picture via shanelowrygolf.com

“There is nothing artificial about it,” he says, though he does admit that he barely managed to stand upright for a split second on the surfboard. “It is exactly me and exactly the way I want to be portrayed. I am just one of the lads that likes doing different things that just happens to be good at golf. That’s the way I am. Simple and easy going.”

With career earnings on the European Tour of more than €3.2 million, Lowry makes a comfortable living at the game but says he is not in the least motivated by money or the trappings of wealth.

“Growing up we wouldn't have had much at all,” he explains. “My parents would have got loans out to look after me and allow me to play golf and I remember my first pay cheque was in France. I finished 50th and made sixteen grand (€16,800). I went home thinking I was a millionaire. 

“I don’t look at what my career earnings are but my first big pay cheque was in Japan and I won €90,000 at the Christmas of 09 and it was great. I was able to buy a couple of people nice presents and that’s the way I looked at it. I am still that sort of way. I am not a big money type of person. I don’t have expensive habits or expensive tastes. 

“I wouldn’t pay big money for a Ferrari, no. That’s one thing that’s good about me and I think I will go far in the game because I don't think of it that way. When I have a chance of winning a tournament, I am not thinking abut finishing second or the difference between second and third. I am thinking about winning. In a way, the odd day you might finish 10th because of a bogey but you will win more because of it.”

Twelve months ago Lowry decided he’d try and play a few events on the PGA Tour but having beaten McIlroy in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Matchplay, eventually going down to McDowell in the third round, he played another four events on invitations but made just one cut.

America is not for him and he prefers the camaraderie of the European Tour to the loneliness of the US circuit. Instead - buoyed by good performances in The Open, the Bridgestone Invitational and the US PGA - he sees a future for himself as a European Tour player with a global schedule. 

As he said after the final major of the season at Oak Hill: ““I am not blowing my own trumpet here or anything but there are not many players in that Top-50 in the world I feel like are better than me. I just need a couple of breaks here and there and get myself in there and I guarantee you I won’t be moving out of it.”

It’s a view he still holds. 

“I don’t know how this is going to come out but I don’t think they have got anything more than I have got,” he says of the Top-50 brigade. “I think I am good enough and I will stay patient and wait for it to happen. That’s the one thing I have to do. It’s when I try to force it and try and do it is when it won’t happen. Maybe when I least expect it is when it will happen.”

As for Europe v America, he says: “When I was over there, I wasn’t playing any tournaments with Rory or Graeme. You go down to Puerto Rico or New Orleans and there is no one there that you know. It is a lonely old place and there’s a different vibe. I am sure I will do it again in the future. I am really happy playing in Europe and as I’ve said, I’ve said it before and I will say it again, Europe is crying out for someone to take it over and do well and win multiple times each year. 

“Mr Europe? Yes. Monty was the ultimate Mr European Tour. Thomas Bjorn is kind of in that role now but it seems to me - and I was guilty of doing it this year - any young guy that does well in Europe straight away wants to go to America. It’s not for everyone.”

Shane Lowry. Picture via shanelowrygolf.com

Shane Lowry. Picture via shanelowrygolf.com

Lowry’s great appeal is that he is immensely likeable - a home town boy who came good. Like Darren Clarke, he is popular because he’s no different to any other 26-year old you might meet on a night out in Tullamore or Dungannon, or Mullingar. As the touring professional for Carton House, he’s almost as happy playing his best friend Dara Lernihan for the price of breakfast as he is teeing it up in majors. That said, he loves the big stage and the limelight. And he’s not afraid to dream big.

“I definitely think my game is good enough to compete at the highest level. I have no doubt about myself tht way. I think it is more because I love the feel of playing at the highest level, playing in front of big crowds. I think that’s why I feel like I can excel in those big tournaments.

“Augusta? That’s a dream and I know I will play in the Masters some day. As I say, if I stay patient, it will happen and hopefully that will be next year.”

Grinning as he contemplates the scene, he says: “I’d love to put on the green jacket. I’d take that.” 

“My good golf is so much better now than my good golf was and my bad golf is so much better too. Better misses. I read Hank Haney’s book ‘The Big Miss’, and that was what Tiger always talked about. It’s not about how good your good golf is, it’s about how good your bad golf is.” 
Had Lowry’s third place finish in the Alfred Dunhill Links come a week earlier, he might have put himself in the spotlight by playing in the Seve Trophy. Instead, he ended up missing out by one spot on both the European and World Points qualifying lists. It was a disappointment but if results go his way, he could have an outside chance of challenging for a Ryder Cup place in 2014, eight years after he first experiencing the biennial event’s unique atmosphere as a fan at The K Club.

“I was there on the Friday,’ he says. “I remember the bad weather. I remember it was mental. I remember going to stand by the back of the fourth green after everyone had teed off. It was wild. I was there when [Darren] Clarke[y] went onto the first tee. When I went home I had a sore throat that evening from roaring. 

“I wasn’t standing there thinking, one day I could be playing in one of these. Even watching Medinah last year, again I wasn’t sitting there thinking about Gleneagles. I was just delighted that they were winning that one. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to play in a Ryder Cup. I get on well with Paul McGinley and have played with him quite a bit recently. He just says to me, ‘Shane, just keep playing well.’ That’s all you need to do. He’s not trying to put any pressure on me. I’d love to play on that team. I’d love to make it and to be an Irish person on that team would be great. He’d be a great captain. He’d be brilliant. He’s fiery and you would get up for it with him.