Shane Lowry might not win the Honda Classic but if last night’s opening 67 is a taste of what’s to come this season, he may well join that major-winning club.
The 28-year old defied winds gusting up to 30 mph to finish birdie-eagle for a three under 67 worth a share of fifth place behind leader Sergio Garcia and Michael Thompson, who shot five under 65s to lead by one from William McGirt and Rickie Fowler.
The winds abated somewhat after lunch but the rest of the Irish did not take advantage.
Graeme McDowell shot steady, one over 71 while Rory McIlroy — his short game misfiring — three-putted the 18th from 10 feet for par and a two over 72 and left without comment.
As for defending champion Pádraig Harrington, who played alongside McIlroy, the Dubliner lost a ball up a palm tree and double bogeyed the 10th en route to a 73 that left him in the bottom half of the field.
And so It was Lowry who flew the flag for Irish golf with his stunning morning round and it’s clear the Offaly man has moved up a level with his win in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron last year.
He’s not just backing himself to make the Ryder Cup team the hard way by taking on Europe’s US-based superstars such as McIlroy, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson for just five spots via the World Points list, he’s confident he has the game to answer the questions in a major.
His opening round on the Champion Course at PGA National was hugely impressive, not just because he conquered a steady crosswind on a water-strewn course, but because he took on the tough shots and pulled them off when others were running for cover.
“It'd it up there in the top 15 rounds of my career,” a beaming Lowry said after mixing an eagle and five birdies with four bogeys. “A 67 out there feels like a 62 or 63 to be honest.”
The highlight of his day was the raking, 243-yard three-iron to the par-five 18th that pitched at the front of the green and finished just three feet from the stick.
“The wind was howling out of the left, “ Lowry explained. “It was a hard 3-iron and tried to not let it go right. I was just trying to get it up somewhere left of the green or somewhere on the left side of the green and thankfully it came off straight at the flag and released down to about three feet. It was a nice way to finish.”
Lowry played brilliantly early on and reeled off a hat-trick of birdies from the fourth with a brace of five irons to less than three feet both the fifth and sixth, two of the most spectacular shots you could wish to see.
“It is very instinctive,” he said of playing in the wind. “You get your yardage some advice from your caddie but you know that if you’ve got 190 into the wind, if you hit a hard five iron it will get up and that you need to hit a soft four iron to stay down under the wind.”
Like a summer’s day in Balbriggan, Rob,” he said to his performance coach Robbie Cannon, a member of the north Dublin club, as he strode up to his birdie putt at the fifth with the sun shining and the wind whipping the flags.
He credits performance coach Cannon and his chiropractor, Shane Lawlor, with giving him the physical tools to avoid “lazy swings” and eliminate a hip problem that led to a stock bad shot earlier in his career.
But despite all his early brilliance, he almost threw his round away, three-putting the seventh and eighth for bogeys and then dropping another shot at the tough 10th, where he was forced to lay up after a poor tee shot.
With the Bear Trap ahead, disaster lurked. But Lowry responded by taking on the course and producing a homeward nine of 33.
He didn’t birdie the 11th after a hold-up six iron from 170 yard to 15 feet. But it gave him confidence to finish the round beautifully.
“That was the best shot I hit today, into that crosswind,” Lowry said “Water on the right and you can’t miss left because it is an impossible chip. “
After following missed three footer for birdie at the 12th with a birdie at the 13th and regulation bogey into the wind at the tough 14th — “It was either 3-iron or 5-wood into the wind and the pin looks like it's in a canoe on the right side of the green” — Lowry negotiated the Bear Trap in one under.
The wind was helping at the 17th and with the tee up, he hit a nine iron to 17 feet and made two having played gutsy iron shots to the heart of both the 15th and 16th greens, the latter a nerve-shredding mid-iron over water to 18 feet from a fairway trap.
His eagle finish showed his class but given his ambition, we should not have been surprised.
“I have always had very high expectations of myself,” he said as Phil Mickelson answered questions nearby about a solid opening 69. “I was never going to be a golfer who was happy making a certain about of money a year.
“I want to go out and try to win tournaments. Obviously the win at Firestone has helped. I know I can do it and I know there is no-one in the field that I fear.”
McIlroy and Harrington went off together in the afternoon but it was a fraught one for the Dubliner, who used binoculars to try and identify his ball at the top of a tall palm tree at the 10th but couldn’t and was forced to retreat to the tee.
He bogeyed the 11th to boot to go four over and did well in the end to sign for a 73 as McIlroy made five birdies, four bogeys and a double bogey six in a rollercoaster 72.
For Harrington, the lost ball was far more painful that the back twinge that forced him out of the Pro-Am and had him on the chiropractor's table in the morning.
“It was a nice tee shot but a little punishing and I am sure it will happen again to another player this week, so the odds of it happening again are very strong,” he said.
“It was disappointing as on a tough day, and a very windy day, you don’t want things going against you. If you get over par it’s always hard on days like today to claw it back."
As for his health, Harrington added: "The back is good. No problems at all. I had a lot of treatment on it, like about four hours this morning before tee off
“I just had to pressurise it as much as I could during my practice and it definitely cost me a couple of shots out there today not playing a full Pro-Am round yesterday like playing shots from the rough where you get a feel for the course.
“It’s the first time it’s happened it me and it’s just a practice thing and I am not too stressed about it."
World No 3 went out in one over but while he had birdies at the 12th and 13th , he visited three bunkers as he made a double bogey six at the 14th, hitting the face of a fairway bunker and going into another just ahead before putting his third in more sand left of the green.
After a birdie on the 15th, McIlroy foind sand with his approach to the 16th and made another bogey, and the finished his round with a three-putt bogey from 10 feet at the 18th
Bunkered green side over the back of the green after a 330 yard drive, he splashed out but ran his birdie putt two feet past before missing for par. It was a 32-putt round and needless to say, he was not pressed for comment.
McDowell was not unhappy with his 71 as he made two bogeys and a birdie in a grinding effort.
“A 71 is a pretty decent reflection of my round as I left a few out there and managed to scramble well,” McDowell said.
“But this golf course, as we all know, in a stiff breeze like there was out there today was tough, very tough and while I didn’t make too many mistakes, I just didn’t make enough birdies.
“I had a couple good chances coming but generally happy enough with the way I played. So I’m just heading to the range for a few drills and I’m out of here.”
Thomson and Garcia, who holed a punched eight iron at the second from 148 yards for an eagle two, shot five under 65s to leads by one from William McGirt and Rickie Fowler with Lowry tied fifth with Swede David Lingmerth, Jimmy Walker, George McNeill and Justin Hicks.
"It's great," Garcia said of his start. "Like you said, it is a tough golf course. And with this wind conditions, it doesn't make it any easier. I guess the great thing was that it rained on Tuesday and a little bit yesterday, and we're a little bit lucky on that side to have the course a little bit softer.
"But it's not going to get any easier as the week goes on. It looks like the winds might slow down a little bit, but yeah, it is a challenging golf course."