Lowry & McIlroy: Friends, partners now opponents
MARANA, Ariz. -- Shane Lowry had not thought much about the Irish Open until he saw the picture posted this week on Twitter.
The celebration was an Irish version of when Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open as an amateur at Brookline. Lowry was a 22-year-old amateur at County Louth in 2009 when he holed a 2-foot putt in a playoff to beat Robert Rock. He dropped the putter and raised his arms in one motion, bounced on his feet and thrust his arms forward. He rushed into the arms of his caddie as hundreds of fans -- parents, cousins, everyone -- swarmed him on the green.
The picture brought to mind a glorious day in his past -- and a daunting challenge in his immediate future.
In the middle of that wild scene was Rory McIlroy, brown curls spilling out from under his golf cap, shaking a bottle of champagne to douse Lowry.
"It was unbelievable," McIlroy recalled Tuesday. "Amateur comes in, virtually unheard of, and plays great in the conditions, and the celebration at the end when he beat Robert Rock in the playoff was pretty special."
Their past includes more than dreary afternoon in the rain at Baltray. They practically grew up together in Irish amateur golf, both the best in their respective age groups, and they were foursomes partners on the Irish team that won the European Team Championships in 2007.
The future is Wednesday at Dove Mountain.
McIlroy, already a two-time major champion at 23, is the No. 1 player in the world and the top seed in the Match Play Championship. Thanks to a peculiar series of events over the last two weeks, his opponent in the first round will be Lowry.
"Who would have thought a few years ago, playing in the European Team Championships at Western Gailes, that we'd be playing in the first round of the Match Play here in a few years' time," McIlroy said. "It's pretty cool to think where we've come from."
What makes this even more compelling is they are nothing alike.
McIlroy was groomed to be a star as a toddler. Lowry didn't even start playing golf until he was 12, and didn't realize he was any good until his late teens.
One of them is comfortable in the spotlight. The other feels at home with the boys in the pub.
McIlroy looks like an athlete. Lowry has a body built by Guinness.
Lowry was asked if there were any similarities between them, beyond their Irish roots. He thought long and hard before saying, "He plays golf."
"I've always thought that Rory was going to be one of the best golfers -- if not the best golfer -- in the world at some stage," said Lowry, two years older than McIlroy. "Growing up, he was always the best in his age group. I was always the best in age groups, as well. Did I think I'd be here playing against the world No. 1? I don't know if I knew I was good enough to turn pro and compete. I didn't know how good I was going to be. I still don't know how good I'm going to be.
"I'm just taking one day at a time and one shot at a time and trying to become the best golfer I can be."
He was good enough to win the Irish Open as an amateur, the greatest achievement in his family since his father, Gaelic soccer star Brendan Lowry, led County Offaly to the All-Ireland Team Championship in 1992. He followed that with a win last year at the Portugal Masters.
Is he good enough to beat McIlroy?
"I'll definitely be going out there fighting for this match tomorrow, and I'll be gunning to try and beat him," Lowry said. "I think if I beat Rory tomorrow, it would be one of the great stories of my career so far. I've got nothing to lose."
The match was in doubt until Sunday.
Phil Mickelson isn't playing, so the top 65 in the world ranking were eligible. Lowry was right on the bubble, getting tweets from an Irish journalist about his fate, and it looked as if he would fall to No. 66 when Fredrik Jacobson was alone in seventh place at Pebble Beach. His last hope was Patrick Reed making birdie on the 18th at Pebble, and the rookie escaped from the rocks and made a 12-foot birdie putt that dropped on the last turn.
"I suppose it was meant to be," Lowry said.
Not long after he booked his flight to Arizona, Brandt Snedeker withdrew because of sore ribs. That meant Lowry would move up one seed to No. 63 and play Tiger Woods. But in the final week before the brackets were announced, Jacobson tied for third and moved past Lowry.
Rarely has anyone felt so relieved to be playing the world No. 1.
"Snedeker pulled out and I was like, `Right, I've got to play Tiger now,' which I didn't know what to make of because I've never met Tiger and Tiger has been a hero of mine," Lowry said. "Tiger would have been quite daunting. But I think because I know Rory so well -- not that it's going to be an easier match for me -- it's going to be easier to stand on that first tee and look Rory in the face and know that I've got a good chance of beating him."
One thing that might be in Lowry's favor is the weather, which is supposed to be so cold and nasty on Wednesday that there is a slight chance of light snow in the morning. In other words, not much different from that magical Sunday at County Louth in the 2009 Irish Open.
The link is strong with the younger lads, though. It was McIlroy who told Lowry he should turn pro after winning the Irish Open, and Lowry did. They are part of the same management company. They play practice rounds or have dinner when they're at the same tournaments. Just not this one.
So who makes the bigger headlines by winning?
"I think if I win, yeah, it'll be pretty big back home," Lowry said. "Because no one is expecting me to win."
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press
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