By Simon Evans
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – If there were any nerves concealed behind Shane Lowry’s thick beard they had no impact on his golf as the Irishman took the British Open by the scruff of the neck with a sensational course record in Saturday’s third round.
On a day ripe for scoring on a becalmed Dunluce links, joint overnight leader Lowry provoked a chorus of roars from the galleries that had flocked to the Antrim coast as he moved four shots clear of Tommy Fleetwood with an eight-under 63.
Several other players, notably Fleetwood, tucked into the third-day birdie-feast but they could not keep pace with the 32-year-old from across the border.
Beginning the day tied on eight under with American JB Holmes, Lowry birdied the third, fifth and ninth going out and then moved into the outright lead with a birdie at the 10th following a magical seven-iron approach from the rough after a rare wayward tee shot.
Fleetwood, playing one hole ahead with compatriot Lee Westwood, was also in scintillating form but having reached 12 under with a birdie on the 12th he could make no more inroads, settling for a 66.
Lowry, whose previous best in a major was tied for second at the 2016 U.S. Open, had missed four consecutive cuts at the British Open but is now poised for a remarkable victory.
Stormclouds are looming, however, and 18 holes around the course on Sunday, when rough weather is expected, could be fraught with danger for Lowry.
He was unshakeable on Saturday, though. Having grabbed the lead he birdied the 15th and then a superb tee shot at the par-three 16th named ‘Calamity’ saw him sink another one.
Cries of “Ole Ole” broke out as Lowry then nailed his approach on the 17th before another birdie dropped.
He strode down the 18th fairway to raucous cheers from fans in the grandstands, who three days ago might have been expecting to be cheering ‘real’ local favourite Rory McIlroy.
He almost sunk his birdie putt on the 18th too, which would have given him a record-equalling 62 for a round at a major, a mark set by Branden Grace at the 2017 Open, and wore a grin as wide as the fairway as he walked off.
“My mind is still a bit fuzzy, I just really enjoyed it today,” Lowry, from County Offaly, said. “I played great golf, the crowd were incredible and I just felt so comfortable.
“Tomorrow it’s going to be tough but there is nowhere I would rather be. A four-shot lead in the Open, in Ireland.”
Fleetwood will still believe he can catch Lowry and win his first major on Sunday after a blemish-free third round.
Westwood, 46, began his third round with three successive birdies and briefly topped the leaderboard but he fell away and finished on eight under after a disappointing 70.
World number one Brooks Koepka had a frustrating day with the putter but moved into a tie for fourth with England’s Justin Rose on nine under after a four-under 67.
Holmes would probably have settled for a round of 69 when he awoke on Saturday, but it left him six off Lowry’s searing pace.
Earlier, England’s Danny Willett took the clubhouse lead with a sizzling six-under 65 to reach seven under, before American Rickie Fowler, still seeking a first major after regularly knocking on the door, moved to eight under with a 66.
Defending champion Francesco Molinari’s hopes of retaining the title look over after he could only manage a one-over 72 to leave himself two over going into the final day.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Toby Davis)