Shane Lowry may not be able to lift 275lb weights as world number one Rory McIlroy did in a gym session in Dubai earlier this week but the affable Offaly man shrugged a huge burden off his broad shoulders when he opened with a superb six under 66 in the $8 million DP World Tour Championship.
Ireland’s top two players under 30 rose seemingly effortlessly to the top of the pile on the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates yesterday, where McIlroy resumed business after a six-week break by matching his former Irish amateur team mate’s pace-setting score in the final European Tour event of the season.
The Holywood star’s effort, one of just two bogey free rounds alongside that of Scot Richie Ramsay (67), was truly remarkable considering he's gone six weeks without hitting a competitive shot in anger.
As they prepare to tee off together today for the first time since Lowry outscored the now four-time major winner by nine strokes over the first two rounds of the 2013 Irish Open at Carton House, both men can reflect on remarkable journeys over the last 16 months.
While McIlroy is going for his sixth tournament win since he missed the cut on the Montgomerie Course last year, Lowry is seeking a third European Tour victory that would spectacularly secure a first trip to Augusta National next April not to mention $2.13m — $1.33m for the title and a potential $800,000 cherry on top from the Race to Dubai Bonus Pool.
The 27-year old world number 52 is certainly not getting ahead of himself having struggled to play his best golf since moving to within touching distance of the Top 50 in the world who will earn early invitations to the Masters at the end of the year.
“I don’t care who it is against, as long as I am there,” Lowry said of the possibility of a head-to-head battle with McIlroy for the title here on Sunday and a potential repeat of their one-two finish in the BMW PGA at Wentworth last May.
Smiling, he added: “If you were to pick someone to go against down he stretch, I don’t think you’d pick Rory.”
Their presence at the top of the leaderboard certainly justifies the prediction of Graeme McDowell’s current coach Pete Cowen, when he saw both in action for the first time at a GUI panel session more than a decade ago.
McIlroy’s talent was obvious but as Cowen cannily pointed out at the time: “You’ve got another one as well… that chubby kid over there with glasses.”
McDowell has never fared well at the venue and struggled to a level par 72 that left him tied for 30th in the 60-strong field while Michael Hoey, whose wife Beverly is to deliver their second child by caesarian section on Monday, battled illness for the second time in as many weeks and felt he’d done well to limit the damage to a one over 73.
Not for the first time this season, it fell to Lowry and McIlroy to fly the flag and both were magnificent with Lowry picking up four birdies in his last six holes to set the clubhouse target in his 10th start in 12 weeks.
After birdies at the first, second and fifth, the Clara native dropped his only shot of the day following a pulled tee shot at the 10th and wondered if he was set for another disappointing day when he stood over a 15 footer for par at the 12th.
Having imploded by dropping five shots in two holes having snatched a share of the lead after four holes of the final round of the Turkish Airlines Open last Sunday, he rolled in the par putt to remain two under and then finished superbly by combining another good par save at the 15th with birdies at the 13th, 14th, 16th and 17th.
The round was all the more satisfying considering what happened in Antalya last weekend but by embracing his situation and focussing on playing good golf, he's back on track again. After the bogey on the 10th he confessed that he nearly "lost it" but he kept his head on and took advantage of a series of quality shots down the home stretch.
“Sunday was quite a difficult day for me,” Lowry confessed of his final round wobble in Turkey. “Obviously I put myself into contention, which is a positive I can look at from last week. I'm just looking to give myself the same chance this week and maybe I won't mess it up.”
Admitting that his world ranking has been playing on his mind, Lowry explained that a chat with his coach Neil Manchip here has helped him focus on the job at hand and forget about the many rewards that could be his before he travels to South Africa for the Nedbank Golf Challenge next week.
“We said to each other, just try and go out and play well and let everything else take care of itself,” he said. “Thankfully that's what I did today and hopefully I have three more days of it.”
He added: "I putted quite nicely today. Drove it quite well, too. I don't know how many fairways I missed but it definitely wasn't too many. The five-iron to 17 probably summed up my day. I've been struggling with that club — literally [it cost him a triple bogey in Turkey and other shots in China the previous week]. Hit it to six feet. The wind was into off the left, quite a tough shot but that was the shot of the day for me.
McIlroy’s meteoric rise to world number one comes as no surprise to Lowry, who was second to the Ulsterman at Wentworth and ninth behind him in The Open at Royal Liverpool, where he claimed the first of three incredible wins on the bounce with the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the US PGA soon to follow.
The world No 1 could have been forgiven had he made a slow start having not played a tour event since he tied for second in the Alfred Dunhill Links six weeks ago. But he is now becoming adept at turning up and turning it on, just as Tiger Woods did in his pomp.
The 25-year old has developed that happy knack of translating his practice range form to tournament play and after four birdies in his first five holes on a course where he is now 80 under par for his last 21 rounds, he picked up two birdies coming home to join Lowry at the top, a stroke clear of Scotland’s Richie Ramsay and Dane Thorbjorn Olesen.
"I feel I've gone through periods in my career where I feel like I've needed a couple of events to get back into it," McIlroy said. "And there's times where I've felt like the best thing for me is a couple weeks off before going into a tournament. It really just depends how you're feeling at the time.
"I felt really comfortable coming into this week after the long stretch off. As I said yesterday, I probably feel fresher than quite a lot of guys, so hopefully that can be to my advantage over the next few days."
The highlight of his round was, arguably, not the imperious ball-striking but the spectacular flop shot to four feet that helped him save par at the 12th.
For Irish fans who watched Lowry and McIlroy capture the 2007 European Amateur Team Championships, it is particularly satisfying to watch them fulfil their potential.
McIlroy is certainly pleased to see his old amateur sparring partner move into the world’s elite.
“It should be good,” he said of their pairing in the final group today. “Shane has had a great last few months. It's been really good to see because he struggled early on this year, and he's really found a good bit of form. He's playing nicely and it should be an enjoyable round tomorrow.”
McIlroy might have the Race to Dubai sewn up but if the former “chubby kid with glasses” wins here, Ireland will rightly claim the best two golfers on the European Tour this season.