PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - They chanted his name, they rose as one for a standing ovation and long after Shane Lowry had departed the 18th green to sign for a course-record 63, the crowd were still following him across the course, singing and celebrating with abandon.
The Irishman, who produced a round of impeccable precision, has a four-shot lead over Tommy Fleetwood going into Sunday’s final round.
The first British Open in Northern Ireland in 68 years could end with an Irish triumph and goodness knows how the capacity crowd will respond if Lowry holds firm and secures his first major win.
“Honestly, that’s the most incredible day I’ve ever had on the golf course. I honestly can’t explain what it was like,” said Lowry.
“I said to (caddy) Bo (Martin) 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”.
There was electricity accompanying Lowry on each hole -- but it was also noticeable that his two of his closest rivals, the English pair of Fleetwood and Lee Westwood playing a hole behind, also enjoyed warm support and appreciation from the crowd.
This is a crowd that is knowledgeable about the game and the challenges of this beautiful links course and they were treated to some outstanding all-round golf from the near-flawless Lowry.
He was honest enough to concede that he -- and the chasing pack -- had been helped by the late afternoon and early evening stillness.
“I’m sitting here after shooting 63, which is incredible. And obviously it is one of the best scores I’ve ever shot, but I think we got very lucky with the weather today. The wind laid down and it played quite easy towards the end.
“The greens are perfect and we’re playing links golf in no wind. It virtually had no real protection out there. If you were hitting decent shots you were getting good results.”
It was the quiet before the expected storm. Sunday’s forecast is for heavy rain and strong winds and while it was suggested that Lowry might have the edge in such conditions, he was quick to dismiss such talk.
“Tommy Fleetwood grew up in Southport, he’s played in bad weather and bad conditions before. J.B. Holmes flights the ball lovely, he’s pretty good. Brooks (Koepke) is there.
“No, there’s a good leaderboard behind me. We’ll see what happens,” he said.
DOWNPLAYING MEMORIES OF FAILURE
Inevitably, his final-round failure at the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, where he also had a four-stroke lead going into the final round, was raised and Lowry did his best to downplay that memory.
“Obviously I learned a lot that day. I learned a lot about myself at Oakmont. I’m going to learn a lot about myself tomorrow.
“I think I learned a few things that day about playing in the final round of a major with a lead, that you need to just hang in until the very last minute. You never know what can happen. And I’m going to do the same tomorrow.
“That’s a long time ago... I don’t think I’m a much different golfer but I feel like I’m a different person now. I think that’s what will help me tomorrow.”
A battle of nerves awaits for Lowry, who can expect a fanatical welcome at the first tee, rain or shine. In anticipation of that moment, he says he will avoid isolation and be open to conversation with, amongst others, his coach Neil Manchip.
“I’m not going to be sitting there tomorrow morning in the house in a corner trying not to think about the day ahead.
“Obviously I’ll go to bed thinking about holding the Claret Jug tomorrow evening. It’s only natural, isn’t it? We’re human. We’re not robots. We can’t not think about things.
“And when you try not to think about something you end up thinking about it more, so you might as well talk about it. So we talk about stuff. Talk about everything.”
He is the talk of the town already but if he can hold firm on Sunday, he will become part of golfing folklore.
Reporting by Simon Evans; editing by Tony Lawrence
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