Scottie Scheffler may never face a more frightening day in his career than the final round of the 86th Masters on Sunday, and not just because he created such a commanding lead that failing to close would be an upset (by the end of the day, his seven-stroke lead had shrunk to three). Scheffler is 25 years old, and the waves he’s created on the PGA Tour—his first three victories came in his previous five starts—haven’t yet subsided. However, a major title, particularly this major championship, is a step above from any of his previous successes. There aren’t many tests more difficult than the one that lies ahead.
Sunday, on the other hand, won’t be the most daunting test of his mettle for one of Scheffler’s (albeit distant) pursuers, wouldn’t do so even if he retained Scheffler’s lead, and wouldn’t represent his biggest victory even if he did overcome a staggering leader.
Shane Lowry is about as proud an Irishman as has ever set foot in America, devoid of pretense and more at ease in the confines of his small Gaelic football club than in stuffy clubhouses surrounded by blue-bloods in black ties. He’s a fierce competitor, a trait he got from his father, Brendan, who was a member of a squad that won the All-Ireland football tournament 40 years ago, a feat for which the national fervor rivals Masters roars.
Lowry’s two most memorable moments have both occurred on his beloved home grounds, and that experience means he’s already conquered the most stomach-churning task he’ll ever face. Whatever happens on Sunday—in he’s fourth place, seven strokes behind Scheffler will pale in comparison.
Lowry has houses in Dublin and Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where he lives next door to Rory McIlroy, a former Irish teammate.
“I’ve been playing a lot of leisure golf with Shane recently,” McIlroy said after shooting a third-round 71 to move into the top 10 on the leaderboard. McIlroy isn’t surprised to see his longtime pal in contention at Augusta National, calling his recent form “alright.” Lowry, he knows, is a man made for the difficult conditions, which are characterized by powerful wind gusts.
He stated, “He has the kind of flat ball flight that works incredibly well in these conditions.”
Lowry excels as circumstances deteriorate, according to the four-time major winner. The Irish Open in County Louth completed in 2009, McIlroy’s debut year as a professional, in weather so bad that even animals would have refused to labor in it. Lowry, a 22-year-old amateur at the time, battled through a final-round 71 to win his national Open in a playoff over Robert Rock. He’d never competed in a Tour event before.
“The more difficult it is to play, the more he enjoys it,” McIlroy added.
When Lowry finished second in the Honda Classic last month, the conditions were tough—basically unplayable in a deluge. Following that, he finished in the top 15 of the Players Championship and the Valspar Championship. He came at Augusta with a peaceful assurance. I asked his caddie, Bo Martin, how his man’s game was doing on Wednesday.
Martin responded, “He might be playing the best golf of his life.”
Martin was on the bag for Lowry’s biggest triumph, so he knows what the best golf of his life looks like.
That happened in July 2019, when he won the Claret Jug in the first Open Championship held in Ireland in 68 years at Royal Portrush. He had a four-shot lead going into the final round and had “sh*****g myself” to win by six shots against tough circumstances, in his charmingly unvarnished words.
“He had a big lead at the time, but he handled it beautifully,” McIlroy said. “I think Portrush will hold him in good stead if he’s in contention tomorrow.”
Scheffler, at least in part, determines if Lowry has a shot to truly compete. Huge leads aren’t secure on Augusta National’s difficult closing holes, as many players more accomplished than the young Texan can attest. Lowry’s chances are also hampered by the fact that the outlook for Sunday is significantly better than the prior two days, which put him into contention.
Only two of the other 89 guys in the field beat his 68 in the whirling gusts on Friday. Lowry acknowledged that it was one of his best rounds of his career, but that while he was happy of it, he did not enjoy it. “I didn’t like for it at all,” he admitted. “It was quite difficult out there.”
He knew he’d need luck and terrible weather as he headed into the weekend. On Saturday, he got the latter, and he’ll need a lot of the former on Sunday. “To be standing there getting green on Sunday, you’re going to need everything to go your way,” he added, appraising his chances. “It’ll be difficult, but I’m looking forward to it.”
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