They roared him down the 18th with a howl befitting a football match so wild and feral this corner of North Antrim hadn’t heard anything like it for decades, if ever at all. And, as Shane Lowry left the green to an amphitheatre chanting his name, even he couldn’t help but crack a smile of disbelief as the indoctrinated home-favourite, born 160 miles south of here, defied nerves and a rampant chasing pack to produce one of the great performances at Portrush, breaking the course record with an eight-under-par 63.
After the tide of emotion that followed Rory McIlory’s exit on Friday evening, the pressure was immense by the time the bearded son of Offaly took to the first tee in the last of the afternoon sunshine. But as his challengers bunched a breath behind him, Lowry burst into an electric finish, birdieing three of the last four holes, to leave the 18th green in a rapture that continued long after he’d departed.
Sunday’s tee-times may have been brought forward due to the forecast of torrential rain and volatile crosswinds, but even in grey skies, the favourite sees a mighty measure of daylight. Prior to this week, Lowry had missed the cut at The Open in four straight years, scoring a combined +23 in total. Tomorrow, he starts with a four-shot lead.
“Honestly, that’s the most incredible day I’ve ever had on the golf course,” Lowry said as the rain started to pour outside and the fans’ serenade continued unabated. ”I honestly can’t explain what it was like. I said to Bo [his caddie] walking off the 17th tee, we might never have a day like this on the golf course again, so let’s enjoy this next half hour. You know what I mean? And that’s what I did. The crowd was incredible. I just can’t believe what it was like.”
Playing in the group ahead, Tommy Fleetwood could only hear the cheers and wonder with forlorn amazement at what else he might have done. The Englishman finished with a bogey-free 66, played with a grace that made the course look so simple and didn’t miss a green in regulation between caressing a 20-foot putt for birdie on the first and reduced the 532-yard par-five 12th to the simplest of tap-ins. He will start in the final group alongside Lowry and, perhaps for the first time, one of the nicest men in golf will be amicably rooted against.
“Tomorrow is not going to be any quieter,” Fleetwood laughed. “It’s going to be more challenging to control yourself in that atmosphere. You have to look at it realistically. I had one of the best rounds of the day and I was bogey-free. Shane just played great and I’m four back.”
Starting alongside Lowry in a share of the lead, JB Holmes couldn’t continue the streak of form that carried him so brilliantly into the weekend, forced into the shadows by the fever that followed his partner’s every stroke. Even the Kentuckian’s repetition of practice swings, capable of rendering the derby to a sedated standstill, couldn’t perturb Lowry’s march.
On the fifth hole and still leading the field at 10-under-par, Holmes took eight practice swings, waggled his club upward of ten times and backed away from his ball thrice more before proceeding to spade his chip into the bank only 15-yards in front of him. He’d never stretch beyond the mark of 10, but a fine answer on the 18th, with his presence by then all but forgotten, ensuring he will remain noticeable on Sunday.
Brooks Koepka continued in another humdrum round of religious and belligerent consistency without truly catching alight. A rousing finish, birdieing the unforgiving 17th and 18th, brought hope of a challenge but on a course ready for the taking rather than becoming a battle of resilience, his looming presence frittered into the background.
He’s joined there by Justin Rose, whose eagle on the profitable twelfth pulled him back into contention, but was left scything at the air in frustration as his shot trickled off the green at 18. The 2013 US Open champion rescued par, but his was a round marked by missed opportunities as he wrestled with a pull that prevented him from making up ground.
For now, though, those in pursuit are insignificant. Lowry has this tournament by the scruff of its neck and only nerves will see him squander it. This was his day, a famous day, and as the raucous celebrations continued, imploring him to administer wave after wave – to which he blearily obliged – it is one that will drift long into the night.