Shane Lowry admits that he had a lump in his throat, so emotional was his first trip up Magnolia Lane on Sunday afternoon. By the time he'd suffered a little on Augusta's exacting front nine, it looked like the course had two hands around his neck at times, but you also sense that the pride of Clara, Co Offaly wouldn't have it any other way.
He'd had an idyllic introduction to the Cathedral of Pines on Sunday, playing the famous back nine and Amen Corner with his faithful caddie Dermot Byrne and coach Neil Manchip for company. It was so relaxed he had a ball — We hear he hit a nine iron to two feet at the 12th and a six-iron to five feet on the 13th.
It was all business as he tackled the tough front nine on his own on Monday morning, and you could almost see the amber warning lights flick on inside his head as each new difficult emerged.
As determined as he is to treat the Masters like any other event, Augusta National is one tough golf course and even if you are hellbent on making it your own and learning its nuances without listening to a barrage of advice, Lowry looked like a man struggling to take it all in. But even Pádraig Harrington continues to learn, as he will have told the midlander later.
Reporter: “What badge number did you get?”
SL: “No. 39, have it here. Not a great front nine that. I don’t know. First of many hopefully. Maybe get No 1 some day.”
More of his play on the front nine later, not that he shot 39. He hit up to three tee shots on each of the par-threes, for example.
But what were his first impressions? Did the course live up to his expectations?
“It’s pretty amazing, everything I expected and more,” he said as he broke for lunch before playing the back nine with Pádraig Harrington. “It’s great here today, it’s only Monday and the crowds here are ridiculous.
“I’ve just played the front nine holes on my own. Got to see them and it was great. I’m very excited about the whole week. I’m just trying to get my game in shape so that I’ll be able to do okay around here.
“It’s going to be quite difficult. The greens are quite severe in places and will take quite a bit of getting used to. I’m really enjoying it. It an amazing experience so far.”
Harrington told Lowry that Augusta is every you think it will be, and more. And it didn’t disappoint the 28-year old Clara man as he sat up front in a courtesy car on Sunday and drank in the view.
“Yeah, it was cool. I was with my coach and my fiancée Wendy. She doesn’t really understand golf and I was saying to her, this is the most famous drive in golf.
“There was a bit of a lump in my throat coming up the drive. It’s good. It’s been kind of a long journey for me to get here. I’m a few years a pro now and as I said it’s great to be here and I’m excited about the whole week.”
With everyone who’s ever played Augusta National ready to pitch in with their 10 cents worth, Lowry has decided that he's better off trying to learn the course himself.
“I don’t know, just try and hit my driver straight and then try and hit it into the middle of the greens,” he said of his strategy. “Obviously you get a lot of advice from different people.
“I’d a good chat with my coach Neil last week and we’ve decided that we’re going to try and figure it out for ourselves.
“I’ll try and do it myself this week, that’s why I played nine on my own this morning, try and go around and get to know the place myself. I’m generally quite good at getting to know golf courses so I think I’ll be okay.
“If you ask me the same question next Sunday evening, I’m not sure what my answer will be but that’s what I’m going to do anyway.”
Darren Clarke believes the course will suit Lowry — a good driver of the ball with a strong iron game and an artist's touch around the greens.
“Yeah, I drive the ball well and drive it quite long. I just hit a tee shot down nine there and I got it almost three-quarters way down the hill and was only hitting a short iron in. If I can keep driving it like that … it definitely favours the longer hitter and I’m not short. I’m just above average hitter so.…”
As for the atmosphere and the possibility of getting overwhelmed, he said: “When you’ve got Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to try and soak it all up and take it all in, it gives you a few days to get used to it. By Thursday, it’s going to be just like coming to another event. You’ve got to enjoy the occasion but not let it get to you.”
There were the inevitable questions about Rory McIlroy’s chances of pulling off the career grand slam — “Well, he’s favourite to win and has got to be the best player on the planet, though I think there’s a few people playing in this field might have some say in that. Fair play to him if he does it but hopefully I’m one that’s going to stop him. You’d definitely like to see anyone do a Career Grand Slam, never mind someone you grew up playing golf with.”
But if McIlroy is playing in his seventh Masters and still looking for the key that will unlock Augusta National, how did Lowry find his first look around the course?
“It was a lovely evening,” he said of Sunday’s quicker skip around the back nine. “I came out. I wanted to play Amen Corner. There were a few people going down the first, so we skipped out on the back nine with Kevin Na and a young Australian amateur. It was nice just to play nine holes."
Like every other first time visitor he was surprised by the elevation changes and the angles.
“The slope is amazing,” he said of the 10th hole. “It’s kind of everything you expect and a little bit more. It’s amazing you can stand here and see so much of the golf course. That’s the one thing I find strange about it.
“I can’t believe how tight the tee shot is on 13. I always thought that was an easy tee shot on TV but it’s not that easy.”
Everyone has their Masters memories but rather than Bubba Watson’s miracle recovery from the trees at the 10th, Lowry recalled another shot on the 10th.
“The first thing I did was have a little look at those houses on the left,” he said if the cabins where McIlroy ricocheted in 2011.”
Q The 11 is a long hole?
SL: I hit 8-iron in there yesterday. It suits anyone if you can carry it 290 off the tee. That’s the type of golfer it suits. I’ve just see Bubba hit a drive down the first and carry that bunker on the right … not many people can do that. You can see how he likes the place. It opens out at 310, 315 so ….
Q: The front nine is tougher?
SL: It is, yeah. The greens are very tricky. Hit a lovely shot into three and it’s 25 feet away.
Lowry hit three hybrids to the par-three fourth, where the markers were right at the tips, 240 yards from a pin set neat the back right.
After the first two came up well short and right, Lowry asked his caddie: “What is it to carry the bunker?”
Effort number three also came up short.
“It’s a long hole. 10 yards forward and it’d be fine,” he said. “It was a 3-iron hybrid.”
He hit three shots to a back left flag the sixth, which measures 180 yards downhill, The first went long right, the second caught a slope and curled off to the front left of the green, the third rolled off the green pin high.
“Six, couple of bad shots in there, just getting to know the place, getting to know where the misses are. You have to get it past the front edge on the first green; you have to miss right on the second, even to that front right flag, it’s not that hard of a pitch or a bunker shot.
“I’m getting to know things like that and still trying to figure it out for myself. I’m going out with Padraig in the afternoon, play the back nine.”
No money exchanged hands with Harrington — "We're having a chipping contest on the range tomorrow," Harrington revealed — but Lowry looked preoccupied afterwards, just as he did at lunchtime.
He certainly wasn’t begging for mercy or curbing his ambitions.
“No, definitely not. I’m hitting the ball decently,” he said.
Then, as he reflected on the real difficulty of Augusta, he said: “You just need to putt well around here. You’re going to have a lot of six to eight footers for pars. You’ve go to try and pick up birdies when you’ve got the chance. It all comes down to the putter. If I can putt well this week, I think I’ll do alright.”
Harrington knew how Lowry would feel before he even got to Augusta.
"Look, it's hard being a rookie going in there," Harrington said. "He has a good game for the golf course. He hits it plenty long enough and he has a really good short game.
"I would never advocate for a player and say, you are going for the first time ever, just enjoy it. You can have a good performance but it is tough to go all the way at Augusta in your first appearance. I know he will be competitive and will want to get himself in there and I do believe he can have a very good finish there.
"And I am sure his goal, realistically, will be to try and get top 15 so he gets back the following year, that sort of thing. But for sure, there won't be as many rookies as good as him going in there, put it like that. The golf course will suit him and once he gets a taste for it, he will never, ever not want to be there."