Open champion. Defending champion. Second last week in Hong Kong, having shot four rounds under par, including a closing 64. Almost exactly halfway through his reign as “champion golfer of the year”, Shane Lowry doesn’t have to look far for good things in his professional life. Little wonder then that a broad smile spread across the face of the 32-year-old Irishman as he took his seat in the interview room on the eve of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
All of which is very different from his mood the same day 12 months ago.
“It’s amazing the difference a year can make,” Lowry says. “Coming into this event last year, I was around 80th in the world [he is currently 19th]. I was not in great form and hadn’t been for a couple of years. So I didn’t know what 2019 was going to bring. So I just did what I do, tried my best and went out and gave it 100 percent the whole year.
“2019 was obviously my best year-to-date,” he continued. “I couldn’t really have envisaged what happened. But it was really nice to get off to an unbelievable start here, winning one of the biggest events on tour. It always has a great field [five of the top-20 in the world ranking are here this week] so it is a really difficult tournament to win. And for me to do that kick-started an unbelievable season.”
Indeed, winning early in the year – as it did for 2018 Abu Dhabi winner Tommy Fleetwood – imbued in Lowry a renewed freedom to just go play. Self-induced pressure was reduced to a minimum, the boost to his previously waning confidence huge.
“Winning once a year is pretty good,” Lowry says. “If you play 25 events and win once, you’ve had a decent year. Little did I know I was going to do what I did at Royal Portrush. But winning here a year ago definitely gave me a lot of confidence going forward.”
There was a dip, though. Perhaps understandably in the wake of his life-changing Open victory, Lowry was somewhat becalmed for the rest of last year. In the 22 European Tour rounds he played as Open champion, he shot under par only 11 times. That 50 percent success rate was duplicated in eight rounds on the PGA Tour. And Lowry’s highest finish post-Portrush and pre-Hong Kong was T-11 in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last September.
“There’s a curiosity watching Shane play,” says former European Tour pro Gary Murphy, Lowry’s close friend and fellow Irishman. “You’re never sure exactly what is going to happen. But something always does. He will always hit a shot that will stay with you. But there is a vulnerability about him, too. He is inconsistent. Which is part of why he is so endearing.”
Murphy speaks the truth. Enormously popular at home, Lowry saw his already burgeoning profile go sky-high in the wake of the heroics that united an often-fractured nation during those four memorable days last July.
“It has been quite overwhelming,” Lowry says. “Lots of little things have changed. When I am home in Dublin, I love going into town, strolling around and having a coffee. When I do that now, I notice everyone looking at me. My wife, Wendy, feels it too. When she leaves the house, she feels like everyone is staring. That won’t seem like a problem to most people, but it is different. Not more difficult, but different.
“Don’t get me wrong. I love being the Open champion. If you didn’t love that you would have to ask yourself why are you playing the game. But it did take a while to adjust. And I probably did put too much pressure on myself at the end of last year to play well.”
“Shane is so loved at home, for all the right reasons,” Murphy says. “A lot of top players are judged as golfers and humans, which is a bit unfair in many cases. But Shane ticks both boxes. It’s the way he is and the way he plays. He’s an artist in a sea of technicians, the polar opposite of, say, Bryson DeChambeau.”
Fleetwood is another fan.
“Shane’s one of my closest pals on tour,” says the Englishman. “One thing I’ve always admired about him is how freely he plays, especially when he’s playing well. I love the flow to his swing. He’s got one of the best short games in world golf. And when he matches that up with hitting it well, he’s obviously very hard to beat.”
All of which only adds to the common misconception that swinging the club, and golf in general, come easy to Lowry. His image, especially in the wake of the raucous celebrations that followed his Open win and went viral on the internet, is one of a fun-loving lad who enjoys a pint or five. And maybe a game of darts.
Not so. By way of example, having played only once during December, Lowry spent four days in Dubai en route to Hong Kong. Twice-daily gym sessions bookended long practice sessions that resulted in blisters on both hands.
“People have a flawed perception of me,” Lowry says with a smile. “They think I don’t do anything, just play a bit of golf and live the life. But they don’t see what goes on in the background. I have a good team of people around me, and I work very hard. I do what I want to do, and I do what works for me. I’ve been working hard the past few weeks.
“And yes, I am comfortable within myself. But it’s easy to be that way when you’ve won two tournaments, one of them a Major. It is after bad seasons like I’ve had before that you really need to believe in yourself. I don’t do things like everyone else. But that is the great thing about golf. There is no one way to do it. And my way is working for me.”
Looking forward, Lowry’s schedule will take him from the European Tour’s Middle East swing to the United States, where he will stay – apart from a brief trip home to the Irish Open in late May – through the US Open. His first PGA Tour event of 2020 will be the Honda Classic. He hopes that will lead to a Ryder Cup debut in September. With one of his closest friends, Padraig Harrington, installed as European captain, Lowry is clearly desperate to make the side that will defend the trophy at Whistling Straits.
“I have goals in my head,” Lowry says. “I don’t write them down; I don’t do any of that. But I have it in my head what I want to achieve this year, and the main thing for me is, make that Ryder Cup team. I’ve set my schedule and everything else out to do that. And no, Padraig and I don’t talk about it at all. It’s not that we’ve made a conscious decision not to talk about it. We just don’t talk about it.”
Still, there is a body of opinion that says Lowry needs only to get close to qualifying automatically to secure one of Harrington’s captain’s picks. That has little to do with the pair’s close relationship and more to do with the fact that Lowry’s amiable personality and game would seem well-suited to the rigours of the three-day contest.
“Shane makes a lot of birdies, and he could play with anyone,” says Murphy, neatly summing up the case for his pal’s inclusion.
All of which is for the future, though. Right now, Shane Lowry is busy having fun.