Celebrating Shane Lowry: Hometown club cheers for Open champion
July 21, 2019
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Shane Lowry's home club reacts as he wins The Open
COUNTY OFFALY, Ireland – The celebration began in earnest after he parred Royal Portrush’s treacherous 16th hole, the one ominously nicknamed “Calamity.”
The crowd crammed into the cozy clubhouse of Esker Hills Golf Club started singing “The Offaly Rover” to celebrate the impending triumph of its local hero.
“A rover I have been and a rover I will stay,
But to that faithful county dear I will return some day,” they bellowed.
The Claret Jug has travelled the world, but it was headed to County Offaly after Shane Lowry’s win at The Open Championship. His victory held extra significance for the Irish people because this was just the second Open held on their island.
The same song was likely sung when Brendan Lowry and two of his brothers helped County Offaly upset County Kerry in the final of the 1982 All-Ireland Championship. It’s still considered one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Gaelic Games.
Now, 225 miles south of Royal Portrush, Brendan’s son was being serenaded by the hometown fans. Men wiped away tears, and lifted their children into the air so they could watch him hole out on the 18th green. Shane Lowry was once that child running through Esker Hills’ clubhouse. Now he was a major champion.
He used to ride his bike some three miles from nearby Clara, then play up to 45 holes. The older men would watch him practice as they enjoyed tea and scones in the clubhouse.
“Rain, hail or snow, Shane Lowry was out there,” said longtime Esker Hills member John O’Shea.
Shane Lowry started showing up at Esker Hills around age 12. He’d played a bit of pitch-and-putt, but he came to this hilly, inland links to start playing the full-length version of the game. Lowry’s athletic lineage helped him pick up the game quickly, but no one would’ve predicted what happened Sunday.
Esker Hills has about 300 members. They thought they’d hit the big time when Lowry earned a spot in the 2009 Irish Open. Then he went on to win the thing while he was still an amateur. He brought the trophy back to Esker Hills the next day.
“We thought it couldn’t get better than that night,” said Ray Molloy, one of Esker Hills’ four directors.
Seven years later, they gathered in the clubhouse to watch him win a major. He had a four-shot lead entering the final round of the 2016 U.S. Open. It was a somber evening in the one-story, wood-paneled clubhouse. Lowry made just one birdie and finished three shots behind Dustin Johnson.
He had a four-shot lead again Sunday. The parallelism wasn’t lost on Lowry or anyone in the Esker Hills clubhouse. There was hope that his experience at Oakmont, and playing on a links course, would lead to a different result.
A member who owns a local printing company made decorations. As Lowry was warming up at Royal Portrush, Molloy’s 26-year-old daughter, Michelle, was hanging banners and bunting. Yellow and green flags – representing the colors of County Offlay -- were strewn across the pro shop and bar. Yellow signs read “The Open Comes to Esker Hills.” Michelle, a 26-year-old brand manager for a chocolate company, helps her father with the club’s social media.
This working-class club has a tight-knit membership that some compare to a family. Visitors can play the club for around 30 euros on weekends (that may change after Lowry’s win).
“There’s no airs and graces here. What you see is what you get,” said John’s brother, Willie O’Shea.
The residents of rural Offlay are a humble people. Shane still shows up to give the prizes at the junior club championship. He ensures that every participant leaves with a prize. Two weeks ago, he arranged for the club’s juniors to walk inside the ropes with him during a practice round for the Irish Open (his playing partner that day was Tommy Fleetwood, who joined him in The Open’s final group).
Shane’s parents, Brendan and Bridget, still come to the course several times per week. It isn’t odd to see Shane at a local sporting event or pub.
This Open was the first sell-out in the tournament’s history, so those who didn’t have a ticket to get in Royal Portrush flocked to the Esker Hills clubhouse to cheer for Lowry. Among the crowd was the club’s lady captain, Aislinn Hackett, who taught Shane at St. Francis Boys School in Clara. “He was a mischievous boy,” she said with a glint in her eye.
The members gave Shane a standing ovation when he stepped to the first tee Sunday. “C’mon Shane!” they yelled between shots. Patrons clinked glasses and shushed the crowd if it was too loud as he prepared to hit, though.
The room quickly filled, with just a narrow gap in the crowd for a harried wait staff to bring out orders of fish and chips, curry and fried mushrooms. Empty bottles of Guinness and cider – “It’s our summer drink,” one man said sardonically as the rain poured down – were quickly swooped up by Ray Molloy. The lithe 64-year-old quickly moved between the clubhouse’s four rooms, clearing glasses, talking to members and conducting interviews. Just a few hours after Lowry tapped in for victory, Ray’s phone had more than 300 unanswered text messages.
“It’s his baby,” Michelle said of the course. “He loves welcoming people.”
Ray Molloy was a popular interview subject for the dozen journalists who descended on Esker Hills. They pressed against the walls to witness a small town’s exuberance as it watched one of its own win the game’s oldest championship. The cameras’ spotlights illuminated the windowless bar.
The club has four directors – Ray, Joe and Donal Molloy, and Donal O’Brien – but Ray handles the day-to-day operations. The club’s land line gets forwarded to his cell phone in the evenings so that he never misses a call. The Molloy brothers were born just a few yards from the clubhouse, in a house that still stands but is uninhabitable.
O’Brien and Joe Molloy farmed the land that is now Esker Hills until the mid-90s. With few courses nearby, they decided to convert their farmland into an inland links course. They tasked Irish golf legend Christy O’Connor, Junior to build it. Within an hour of seeing the property, O’Connor told them, “I will make this place famous,” according to Ray Molloy.
Ice Age glaciers carved the extreme elevation changes of Esker Hills and created a sandy soil similar to the seaside links. Those characteristics helped Shane Lowry at Royal Portrush, the heaving links on the north coast of Northern Ireland.
“The awkward stances and shots have served him well,” said Willie Allen, the club’s longtime greenskeeper. “He’s a natural talent.”
Esker Hills’ clubhouse is a shrine to the club’s most famous member. The windows over the doorway to the bar read, “Home of Shane Lowry, Irish Open Champion.” They’ll soon need to be updated. His staff bag and trophies from his amateur days are housed in a display case. A sign outside the clubhouse lists his professional victories, including the 2015 World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. There are signed flags from those wins hanging on the walls and a large photo from Lowry’s Irish Open win.
The band was still playing past 10 p.m. Sunday. This time, the crowd was singing a different song.
“We are the champions,
Shane is the championnnnn,” they bellowed.
The champion golfer of the year, to be specific.