PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Obstacles on a golf course tend to be closer than they appear when winds are gusting up to 35 miles per hour and accompanying rain provides an added distraction while burrowing into your inner ear.
Gorse, grandstands, sand and out-of-bounds stakes, heather and humans.
The final round of the 148th Open Championship will be remembered for Shane Lowry’s fairytale victory and the sordid horror stories that many of his pursuers will recall with strains of bemusement and bewilderment.
Royal Portrush was as mendacious as advertised on Sunday after three days of general hospitable appeasement. All it took was a strafing wind out of the southwest – the wind most oppressive on the Dunluce Links – to provide the kind of necessary accouterment.
“Some of the shots we faced today are kind of hard to describe,” Jordan Spieth said.
They were without epithets.
It’s not that the weather that moved in over the Causeway Coast and Glens was more severe than anything most competitors had seen before. But as Russell Knox explained after shooting a 77: “We’ve played in worse rain. We’ve played in more wind. But it was on the biggest stage on a demanding course. So everything is kind of highlighted.”
He added this caveat: “It was doable. … If you just kept it in front of you, you could shoot par.”
Indeed, Francesco Molinari, the defending champion, fired a sterling five-under 66. Oh, wait. That was well before any hint of foul weather began bending the high grass in half and transforming the fairways into the width of Twizzlers. When he completed his round, Molinari stood 25th on the leaderboard. He ended up T-11.
None of the final 24 players on the course broke par. Just two players “kept it in front” of them in the final 12 games; Americans Patrick Reed and Tony Finau submitted even-par 71s. In fact, only one player who teed off after 11:30 a.m. local time – Tyrrell Hatton, who shot 69 – bettered par.
Wreckage was strewn across the long-toothed landscape. Poor J.B. Holmes began the day in third place and ended up joint 67th after a hideous 87 that included four double bogeys and a triple. Had he just managed to remain third, he would have pocketed the $718,000 Finau absconded with. Instead, his take was $25,088, making his the most expensive greens fee all-time in all of Ireland.
His woe was shared by many others. Former U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and Matt Kuchar, a two-time winner this year, left smarting after 79s. Henrik Stenson and Spieth, Open champions in 2016 and ’17, respectively, were paired together and shared open wounds. Stenson bogeyed four of his last five holes for 76. Spieth birdied just one hole in a 77. Patrick Cantlay and Sergio Garcia, paired in Game 19, together pitched a shutout – not one birdie between them as they went for 74 and 78, respectively.
Portrush native Graeme McDowell also submitted 77, and along the way lost a ball on the eighth hole. He probably hadn’t lost a ball on the Dunluce Links since he was eight years old.
“Perhaps the best players this week, the guys on the leaderboard, are going to be tested to the highest level coming in,” he predicted.
Yes, and in ways they couldn’t imagine. Bad bounces, well … abounded. Rickie Fowler suffered one of the unkindest as his opening tee shot veered right towards out of bounds, hopped forward, then sideways. It crossed the white stakes.
That second bounce was a carom off a marshal. Exit stage right.
“I didn’t know until afterwards. That sucks,” said Fowler, who battled to a respectable 74 and finished T-6. His agent, Sam MacNaughton, gave him the news after he signed his card.
“Good thing I didn’t know, because I probably would have been a little more pissed,” he added, managing to retain a smile. “There’s nothing you can do about it, obviously. You get good breaks, you get bad breaks. Pardon my French, but that’s a sh…y one. But it is what it is.”
For three days the Dunluce Links barely showed its teeth. The field scoring average through 54 holes was 71.974. On the final day, the field averaged 73.233 as Royal Portrush knocked guys over with a case of bad breath that proved devastating. Ask Justin Thomas, who was cruising along decently until a triple-bogey seven on the penultimate hole. Had he made par, he would have tied for fourth. He settled for 72 and T-11.
Tommy Fleetwood, who finished second, had two bogeys through the first three rounds. He suffered four on Sunday. Still shot 74.
A tumultuous day of golf is not complete without shanks. Ryder Cup teammates Rose and Stenson complied. Rose wedged one askew at the ninth. Stenson “leaned into” a 6-iron and then the sturdy Swede reacted by snapping it over his knee while walking towards the 17th green – or at least somewhere right of it, near the grandstands.
He did shout “Fore right,” though.
Playing in his 25th Open Championship, England’s Lee Westwood said that the wind and torrential rain that pelted the links during the middle part of his round made for the toughest playing conditions he ever had encountered. No surprise that he bogeyed four of five holes in that stretch.
“Yeah, everything was hard,” he said wistfully after a 73 that gave him yet another top-five finish in a major. “Driving was hard. It was hard to get in the fairways. Iron shots, hard to control the distances. Putting was really tricky. There’s some really exposed greens out there. You find yourself giving it a couple of foot for the breeze and then don’t move, and on the next it takes it sideways. So that’s frustrating.
“I remember it being colder and raining more,” he added. “But just to hit that spot in the golf course when it got its worst, you really had to put your head down and keep it low.”
“This is probably one of the hardest tests as far as with this condition, just because this golf course, how penal it is on both sides of the fairways,” Fowler said, corroborating Westwood’s assessment. “You have a lot of doglegs and forced carries. It’s not like you can scoot one out on the fairway. A lot of elevated tee shots or holes that are up on very exposed areas.
“Maybe not blowing as hard as I’ve seen it blow in an Open Championship, but probably some of the hardest conditions I’ve seen, just because of the golf course and the way it is.”
Perhaps, with poetic rectitude, the elements conspired to carry along Lowry, Ireland’s own, playing in the first Open Championship on the island since 1951. Not that he needed the help. His final-round 72 enabled him to win by six strokes as he alone completed 72 holes double digits under par, at 15-under 269.
“I will say this is proper Open Championship weather to become a champion,” said Jon Rahm, who carded a 75 and looked rather pleased, knowing the gauntlet he had just survived. “You can say you truly became a champion on a perfect Open Championship day. Rain, wind, difficult. Whoever gets to do it, they will be called a champion.”
Champion Golfer of the Year, in fact. Take a bow Shane Lowry. It’s well deserved. It also helps to stay under the wind.