Striding alongside Cormac Sharvin and Gavin Moynihan on the empty fairways at Galgorm Castle on Wednesday afternoon, you’d hardly have known you were watching Open champion Shane Lowry in action.
The Offaly man only arrived in Ballymena on Wednesday having spent a couple of days at home with wife Wendy and daughter Iris first, and, after passing his coronavirus test and dealing with the assembled press corps, headed out for his first — and only — look at the course prior to today’s big tee-off.
Had it been any other year, the throngs of fans following would have been massive. After all, this is Shane Lowry, the conqueror of Royal Portrush, back on Northern Irish soil for the first time since that incredible week now over a year ago.
Add to that he is the by far the star attraction in the heavily diluted field too. At 30th in the world rankings,
Lowry is 35 spots better off than the next best ranked Jazz Janewattananond and is one of just three players inside the world’s top-100 at Galgorm. The expectation is that he will be there at the business end come Sunday evening.
So, ironically, it may not be a bad thing that his return is somewhat muted. While the significance of his inclusion in the field is still there, he won’t have the same pressure that a huge home crowd backing him would usually bring.
But, then again, that won’t matter this week. We’re talking about one of the most patriotic players on Tour here, one who is constantly pushing himself to the next level, and one who isn’t content with winning just one national title — the 2009 crown he won as an amateur.
“I don’t think it is possible for me to have more expectations than I always do at an Irish Open,” laughs the 33-year-old.
“If anything, having no crowds here... I will miss them but it might help me a little bit because I probably try a little bit hard in front of the crowds at times and it does me in.
“I felt like the last couple of years at the Irish Open have probably been a little bit better than previous years, so no matter what week I go out to play, I do put a bit of pressure on myself and that is just the way I am.
“There are certain times when you’re playing a final round in a big tournament where you get into a scenario (to win) and the crowds are in your head or in your way, all that type of stuff. It plays a big factor.
“I’m learning how to deal with it. The week here will be a lot different to a normal Irish Open. It’s normally a bit of mayhem. It might help me perform better, who knows, we’ll see.
“I just think it is trying to keep the pressure off me a little bit and to go out there and be myself, play golf and don’t get in my own way, and see where that leaves me at the end of the week.”
At Galgorm, knowing your lines off the tee is essential given the thick, unforgiving rough that awaits even the slightest of errant drives — something which Lowry learned yesterday.
Seeing the course for the first time, it was trial and error. Off the first, he didn’t cut enough off the dogleg right and went through the fairway. At the third, he cut off too much and didn’t reach. At the sixth, he took driver and over-shot the short grass. That ball was lost in the trees.
“I have never been here before, but my first impressions are good,” Lowry had opined prior to heading out, adding that he will rely on caddy Bo Martin, who hails from Ardglass.
“I’d been in the hotel for a couple of hours waiting on my test results and it is a pretty nice hotel, so I am expecting big things for the golf course as well!”
Coming straight from a brutal US Open at Winged Foot won’t help with the preparation either, Lowry finishing 15-over at a tournament where only one player shot under par, an indication of how difficult it was playing for even the world’s best.
“It was probably the toughest golf course I have ever played. It was mentally and physically draining over the week and I didn’t really sleep on Sunday night afterwards,” said Lowry.
“I am probably a little bit drained but, when it comes to it, I will get out there and a little bit of adrenaline will keep me going.
"I personally would have felt awful if I was sitting at home on my couch all week watching this on TV," he continued.
"I would have felt all along that I should have been there. I think I will always be here - I can't see myself ever not playing an Irish Open, that's just the person that I am."
This is something of a final hurrah to the 2020 season for Lowry in that it is his last event for five weeks before he heads back over the US to play at the Valero Texas Open prior to the final Major of the year, the rescheduled Masters at Augusta.
It’s some well earned rest for the five-time Tour winner, who has been on the road in the States for the last nine weeks competing at two Majors and in the FedExCup play-offs as well, and will give him the chance to rest and reflect before heading back across the Atlantic.
“I’m looking forward to a few weeks off, I’m looking forward to spending some time with my family, be able to walk Iris down to school — it’ll be pretty nice,” he says.
“Nine weeks away, without making excuses it probably affected me a little bit towards the end, it was maybe too difficult. When you start playing badly you wonder what you’re doing it for, what’s the reason you’re here, why are you bothering doing this. It was tough and it was a learning curve. We’re in strange times in the world and in our lives, so you have to try and make the best decisions you can and get on with it.
“This week I am just here to do as best I can and hopefully that is up near the top of the leaderboard at the end of the week.”
So, for one more event, it’s back into game mode. If it goes as well as the last time he was in Northern Ireland, it’ll certainly be a good way for Lowry to head into the break.