‘We will never forget that day’
As Shane Lowry returns the Claret Jug, a look back at his home club’s memorable celebration
July 11, 2021
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Celebrations at Esker Hills Golf Club when Shane Lowry won the 2019 Open Championship. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
The celebration was unforgettable. Now it feels unfathomable.
As Shane Lowry started the final round of the 2019 Open Championship with a four-shot lead, the clubhouse of his childhood course was jammed with the residents of the rural area where he grew up. International media, eager to capture a unique angle to Lowry’s potential triumph, gathered to capture the spectacle. That included myself and our photographer, Keyur Khamar.
The wood-paneled dining area of Esker Hills’ small, one-story clubhouse was filled beyond capacity. The only social distancing was a small gap in the tables that allowed the harried staff to deliver drinks and orders of fish and chips, curry and fried mushrooms. People who’d known Lowry since he was a wee lad cheered and chanted as he withstood the wild weather at Royal Portrush to win by six shots.
COVID-19 extended Lowry’s reign an extra year. It’s the longest anyone has held the claret jug since World War II. He has to return the historic trophy at Royal St. George’s this week, however.
The Open’s return is welcomed by any golf fan, but it’s bit bittersweet for Ray Molloy. Esker Hills, the small club that once promised Lowry a party if he simply made the cut in the Irish Open, will no longer lay claim as the home of the current Open champion. It was a title that Esker Hills wore with pride.
“We will never forget that day. Visitors come and ask what it was like. It was such an honor, and it only happens to one club in the world each year,” said Molloy, who runs Esker Hills’ day-to-day operations. “For it to befall us, a small club of 250 members, we’re really proud of that. Those hills and hollows, that’s where he learned to play.”
The celebration of Lowry’s win showed that. The joy that night was infectious. Seeing it in person was one of the highlights of my 15-year career. The clubhouse rang out with cheers of “Ole! Ole! Ole!” and the county’s anthem, the Offaly Rover. Children excitedly ran about, holding homemade banners. Grown men cried.
Shane Lowry's home club reacts as he wins The Open
It’s only been two years, but that night feels like a lifetime ago. It took place in another era, when there was never a second thought about jamming into a bar with a bunch of strangers to watch a golf tournament. There were no masks worn that Sunday and the only ailment people were worried about was the next morning’s hangover.
Khamar and I made the four-hour drive from Portrush to Esker Hills, a humble course built on a former farm, that Sunday morning. Molloy’s enthusiasm in our conversation the previous night convinced us to make the trip.
“(Esker Hills) is his baby,” said Ray’s daughter, Michelle. “He loves welcoming people.”
I was surprised when he answered the phone at 10 p.m. the previous evening, only to learn that he has calls to the clubhouse forwarded to his cell phone so that no inquiries go unanswered.
Khamar and I were warmly referred to as “the Americans” as we documented Esker Hills’ celebration and returned the next day to enjoy the course for ourselves. Our accents (or lack thereof) belying us, we were warmly welcomed by strangers who’d heard about the foreigners who’d infiltrated their ranks. We felt a bond with the club, and it has been made even stronger by the nostalgia for a pre-COVID era. We cannot wait for the day we can accept Ray’s invitation for a return trip.
I called Ray again recently to check in on him and the course he loves so dearly. It’s undoubtedly been an eventful two years. Speaking to Ray was like talking to an old friend, thanks to his hospitable nature and the gratitude he feels for the people who told the story of tiny Esker Hills.
Ray is one of the course’s four directors – along with his brothers, Joe and Donal, and Donal O’Brien. The Molloys grew up in a home just a few yards from the clubhouse and the land was converted from a farm into a golf course in the mid-90s.
The heaving land was carved by Ice Age glaciers, and the firm soil is why Ray Molloy calls it an inland links. “I will make this place famous,” said Irish golf legend Christy O’Connor, Jr., who designed Esker Hills.A view of Esker Hills Golf Club. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
And the hopes were that Lowry, and his win, would do the same.
The celebration that Sunday evening lasted into the night with a cover band playing “We Are the Champions” hours after Lowry’s win. Ray Molloy got home at midnight but he was back at the club six hours later. One man had arisen at 4 a.m. to drive from Dublin to Esker Hills. He was at the front door when Ray arrived.
“The yard was full of cars,” Ray Molloy recalled recently, a sense of amazement still in his voice. Sky News arrived that afternoon to tell the story of the club that had raised an Open Champion. Scenes from Esker Hills were also shown on ESPN and Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE.
“I said, ‘Lads, we have made it,’” Ray remembers. A bus of Australian tourists made a detour to Esker Hills that day. A few weeks later, a busload of Americans arrived. Golf wasn’t part of their itinerary, but they stopped by to look at the first tee and the 18th green.
“The wanted to see where Shane grew up,” Ray says.
The claret jug visited Esker Hills about 10 times in the last two years. The first time Lowry returned, he asked that the reception be limited to members. His homecoming had overwhelmed the town of Clara, as 15,000 people crowded into a city with a population of approximately 3,500. He wanted his return to Esker Hills to be small and intimate. The club’s captains, Paul Rabbette and Aislinn Hackett, were the first people he presented the jug to. Hackett was Lowry’s teacher at St. Francis Boys School.Shane Lowry and the Claret Jug with members at Esker Hills. (Courtesy of Esker Hills)
Esker Hills, often overlooked in favor of the country’s seaside links, had hit the big time. The impact was immediately evident. Letters and phone calls arrived from around the world. Rounds were up about 30% in August and September, Ray says. That was important for a small club in a country that had only recovered a few years earlier from the global financial crisis that began in 2008.
“Our expectations were so high for 2020,” Ray says. “Then this bombshell of the virus. We thought it would last a couple weeks or months. It’s had a huge effect, and now for years to come.”
Esker Hills closed for several months because of COVID, resulting in what Ray calls a “big loss of revenue.” Government assistance was needed to keep all its staff during the closures. But now it is benefiting from a golf boom. Membership is up over 20%. When restrictions were lifted, some people played five or six days in a row.
“They missed the walk,” Ray said. “They missed their friends.”
They missed Esker Hills. I miss Esker Hills.
Ray Molloy and his daughter Michelle at Esker Hills. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)