Scottie Scheffler may never face a more daunting day in his career than what awaits in Sunday’s final round of the 86th Masters, and not just because he built a lead so commanding that failure to close would be an upset (by day’s end, what had been the seven-stroke edge had dwindled to three). Scheffler is 25 years old and the splash he’s made on the PGA Tour — his first three wins coming in his last five starts — is so recent that the ripples haven’t yet settled. Yet a major Championship, in particular this major Championship, is a different order of magnitude than any of his previous victories. Tests don’t come any more Stern than what lies ahead.
For one of Scheffler’s (admittedly distant) pursuers, however, Sunday won’t constitute the most intimidating test of his mettle, wouldn’t do so even if he held Scheffler’s lead, and wouldn’t represent his Greatest win in the event he could overtake a stumbling leader.
Shane Lowry is about as proud an Irishman as has ever touched down in America, devoid of artifice, more comfortable in the precincts of his local Gaelic football club than in stuffy clubhouses amid blue-bloods in black ties. He’s a ferocious competitor, a trait inherited from his father, Brendan, who 40 years ago was part of a team that won the All-Ireland football Championship, the national fervor for which makes Masters roars seem muffled by comparison.
The two Greatest Moments of Lowry’s career have both come on the home turf he loves, and that experience means he has already Aced the most stomach-churning challenge he’s likely to face. Whatever happens Sunday — he enters the day in the fourth, seven strokes adrift of Scheffler — pales by comparison.
Lowry has homes in Dublin and in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Where his neighbor is a former Irish teammate, Rory McIlroy.
“I’ve played a lot of recreational golf with Shane lately,” McIlroy said after signing for a third-round 71 that crept him into the top 10 on the Leaderboard. While describing his longtime friend’s recent form as “alright,” McIlroy isn’t surprised to see him in contention at Augusta National. He knows Lowry is a man made for the Tricky conditions, marked by strong wind gusts.
“He’s got the kind of flat ball flight that works really well in these conditions,” he said.
The four-time major Winner knows something about how Lowry excels as conditions deteriorate. In 2009, McIlroy’s first year as a professional, the Irish Open at County Louth concluded in weather so atrocious that even livestock would have refused to work in it. Lowry, then a 22-year-old Amateur, gutted out in the final-round 71 and won his National Open in a playoff against Robert Rock. It was the first Tour event he’d ever played.
“The harder it plays, the more he likes it,” McIlroy said.
Conditions were tough — basically unplayable in a downpour — on the closing holes of the Honda Classic last month when Lowry finished 2nd. He followed up with the top 15s in both the Players Championship and the Valspar Championship. He arrived in Augusta feeling quietly confident. On Wednesday, I asked his caddy, Bo Martin, how his man’s game looked.
“He might be playing the best golf of his life,” Martin replied.
Martin knows what the best golf of Lowry’s life looks like since he was on the bag for his Greatest win.
That was in July 2019, when he hoisted the Claret Jug at Royal Portrush in the first Open Championship held in Ireland in 68 years. He had entered that final round with a four-shot lead and — in his delightfully unvarnished words, “sh ***** g myself” —and survived adverse conditions to win by six.
“He had a big lead then but he played well with it,” McIlroy Remembered. “If he’s in contention Tomorrow, I think Portrush will stand him in a really good stead.”
Whether Lowry has a chance to really contend depends at least in part on Scheffler, who has a TK stroke edge on Cameron Smith, with Lowry a further TK back. But as many players more accomplished than the young Texan can attest, huge leads aren’t safe on the treacherous closing holes at Augusta National. Also mitigating against Lowry: Sunday’s forecast is much more pleasant than the last two days that propelled him into the mix.
His 68 in swirling Winds Friday was bettered by only two of the other 89 men in the field. Lowry admitted it was among the best rounds of his career, but while it was something of which he was proud, it was not one he enjoyed. “I didn’t enjoy it really much at all,” he said. “It was so hard out there.”
As he headed into the weekend, he knew he’d need good fortune and bad weather. They got the latter on Saturday and will need plenty of the former Sunday. “You’re going to need everything to go your way to be standing there getting green on Sunday,” he said, assessing his odds. “It’s going to be hard, but I’m looking forward to it.”