Date: July 23, 2019
Author: Mike Clayton

CLAYTON: Open moments that matter

For the Irish living north of the border, the Open fairytale was always going to be a Rory McIlroy win, but the line of white stakes bordering Royal Portrush’s first fairway snuffed out any chance of it just after noon on the first day.

A frantic Friday 65 left him one short of the cut line, but if winning was the objective then Thursday’s starting eight and resultant 79 left him far too much to do and making the cut would only have been a chance for his adoring fans to watch him for two more days.

The two other “locals”, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, were respectively too old and not quite as good as the glory years, so for both making the triumphant 72nd hole walk was something of a fantasy.

Padraig Harrington, twice the champion and from the other side of the border is, like McDowell, almost a decade past his best, so the hopes of the island, north and south, fell upon Shane Lowry – a man defying the notion golfers need to be “athletes” to compete in the modern era.

Clearly one more likely to eschew a gym than a beer, Lowry’s game is based on a high level of skill, beautiful hands and a cheerful disposition so important to playing good golf.

Of course not all champions were outwardly cheerful but inwardly there was often a cheerful, optimistic serenity in knowing their methods would likely hold up and that they wouldn’t beat themselves with silly mental errors.

A four-shot lead can disappear in no time and it was eminently possible three of them could have gone by the time Lowry and English ball-striking machine Tommy Fleetwood had reached the second tee on Sunday.

Lowry opened with a hook then a good iron that caught the back edge of the front bunker and trickled back into the sand. After Fleetwood ripped a drive and a long iron into 10 feet, the leader predictably came up well short from the deep pot and then left the putt barely inside Fleetwood’s iron.

The implications were obvious and stark. Fleetwood holes, Lowry misses and it’s a single-shot margin. But it went the other way and Lowry had to have felt he almost picked up a shot.

In retrospect it was the turning point.

Koepka was off to an awful start, but not quite as awful as his playing partner Holmes who eventually took 87 slow blows for the day.

Koepka steadied and played a decent round, but he was too far behind to contend unless Lowry made a mess of it.

He did have a bad time of it around the turn but saving a three from the sand after a self-admitted terrible 9-iron at the par-three 13th helped, as did his bogey at the difficult hole to follow where Fleetwood’s double snuffed out his own hopes.

The Lowry birdie at the 15th clinched it and the rest of the way was a joyous procession followed by the traditional “champion golfer of the year” coronation.

We wonder what to make of the best Australians.

Cameron Smith was decent, tying for 20th after 76 in the worst of Sunday’s weather.

Jason Day bogeyed five of the last six holes on Friday to miss the cut by a shot and, for such a good player, that’s unfathomable.

Marc Leishman and Adam Scott weren’t even close to making the cut when it was hardly unreasonable to expect them to contend.

Of course at an Open the draw – good and bad – can have such an influence and performing below expectations isn’t exactly unknown in professional sport.

Still, it would be difficult to imagine Australians having such a meager result in an Open, but it’s likely an anomaly as the “Big Three” are all having good seasons in the United States.

It does, however, beg the question of where the next generation is coming from and when it is going to emerge. Ryan Ruffels and Brett Coletta have shown signs in the past few weeks and both are fantastic looking players. Curtis Luck and Cameron Davis have had a few decent results on the PGA Tour this year, but unless something dramatic happens in the next few weeks they will be back playing for their cards in the northern autumn.

Min Woo Lee, almost by accident, has finished up on the European Tour with some fine results off the back of a few sponsors’ invitations. His aim was to play his way on to the Korn Ferry Tour (formerly Web.Com) and earn his PGA Tour status from there, but there are such things as happy accidents and this is but one example.

Lee is a brilliant player, perhaps even as good as his big sister MinJee, and a few seasons in Europe didn’t do Koepka any harm.

Nor Lowry, who is something of a throwback to an era long past when golfers truly looked like they enjoyed the game and those good enough to play it with his level of joie de vivre were, and remain, a joy to watch.