2019 British Open Parting Thoughts: Lowry’s Victory, Koepka Makes History and More

Daniel Rapaport
Sports Illustrated

If it can’t be Rory, let it be Shane.

In a stroke of poetry fitting for a storybook week at Royal Portrush, a man from the Irish island captured the first Open Championship held outside of Great Britain since 1951. A Hollywood script might have had a Northern Irishman coming out on top, but the first-ever sellout crowd at an Open adopted Shane Lowry, who is from south of the border, as one of their own all week. As an ear-to-ear smile peeked through his bushy beard, Lowry looked very much like a hometown hero when he strolled up the 18th fairway with the tournament buried deep in his back pocket. This felt very much like a hometown triumph--a collective victory for all of Ireland. 

Here are 18 parting thoughts from the final major of 2019:

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1. We begin, as always, with the winner. So much has been written about Lowry’s Irish heritage and what it means for this man, from this island, to win this tournament. We’ll focus on something a little more golf-specific. X’s and O’s, if you will.

The margins in golf are perhaps smaller than any other professional sport. One week, a player can look completely out of sorts, missing fairways by miles and skanking iron shots and missing every putt he looks at. The next week, he can shoot 22-under-par and, in doing so, look like a Robotron genetically engineered for birdies.

I followed Shane Lowry around for nine holes on Thursday at Augusta. He was an absolute mess—the short game is always tight, but he was plagued by flares with the driver, mis-hit iron shots from the middle of the fairway, that sort of thing—and barely managed to break 80. He missed the cut by four. At that point, Lowry had missed the weekend in four of his last five stroke-play events … and the only time he did play the weekend was at the WGC-Mexico Championship, where there is no cut. He finished T62 out of 71 players that week.

The week following the Masters, he contended from Thursday to Sunday and finished tied for third at the RBC Heritage. He backed it up with a top 10 at Bethpage Black, one of the most demanding ball-striking courses on this planet. Two months later, he beats a field featuring all of the game’s biggest stars (49 of the world’s top 50 teed it up this week, with Kevin Na the only absence) by six.

Perhaps the go-to platitude when a player is struggling—“I’m really close to turning it around, I’m seeing positive signs, just waiting to see results”—has some truth to it. Often times, these guys need just the slightest adjustment or attitude shift to start playing the best golf of their lives. For Lowry, something clicked in a massive way between Augusta and Harbor Town, and that click sent him on a path to the Claret Jug.

2. The first three majors of the season were won by new-age golfers. At least physically speaking. Tiger Woods is the original golfer-athlete, the one responsible for spawning a generation of golfers who look like … well …athletes. He, of course, won the Masters. Then Brooks Koepka, who announcers say is built like a linebacker but really profiles more as safety, took the PGA. Barrel-chested Gary Woodland, who played basketball in college, wins the U.S. Open

And then there’s Lowry, whose physique suggests he enjoys a beer or two when he wants to. No one has ever suggested that Lowry looks like he could have played a number of other sports professionally. A throwback golf body, so to speak. 

This is one of the beauties of golf. You can look like Brooks Koepka and you can look like John Daly—the golf ball doesn’t know the BMI of the guy who hit it. This was a victory for all the dad bods out there.

3. Brooks Koepka just keeps on Brooks Koepkaing. If you watched him play this week without looking at a scorecard, you’d think he finished somewhere around 50th. He made virtually no putts. He looked frustrated all week. He finished in a tie for fourth.

The Brooks-Tiger comparisons aren’t fair to either guy, but this is the internet and we’re in the business of making unfair comparisons. The way he just finished in the top five at a major, without his A-game, looking annoyed the whole time, was very Tiger-like. Koepka becomes just the fifth player in the modern era to finish in the top five at each of the four majors in one year, joining Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and … Rickie Fowler, funny enough. Had he not bogeyed 17, Koepka could have become the first player ever to finish top three at all four.

You can’t help but be interested in how Koepka handles the nine months between now and Augusta. He said this week that he “doesn’t practice before regular tournaments”—I have my doubts as to the veracity of that statement, and he most certainly practices in the offseason, so “before” is sort of a loose term—and he clearly does not care one inch about winning the Northern Trusts of the world. But he’s the prototypical alpha male, and he loves to assert his dominance. So will he be content sitting back, being too-cool-for-school throughout the FedEx playoffs and beginning of next season? Will he be fine with watching the DJs and Rorys and Roses of the world pile up victories and world ranking points and headlines? Or will he bless those tournaments with the ferocity he brings to majors?

4. Koepka, who has emerged as something of an anti-slow play zealot, might have finished even better if he didn’t have to play with the notoriously methodical J.B. Holmes, who shot 87 on Sunday and took his sweet time doing so. Holmes has defended his pace of play with vigor—I will not soon forget the look he gave me when I asked him about it after his win at Riviera—but his case becomes a lot weaker when he doesn’t pull out his club on the first tee until after he’s had 12 hours to decide what he’s going to hit, after Koepka plays, and after his name is called.

Having a torturously long pre-shot routine (which Holmes does) is one thing, but the most egregious part of slow play is not getting ready to hit until it’s your turn. And the worst part is, there are sports psychologists telling players to zone out when it’s not their turn, and to only come back into focus when they have to. The idea there is, it’s impossible to stay locked in for four hours, so it’s good to let your mind wander. In theory, sure. If you are the only player on the golf course, fine. But in a tournament setting, it’s simply inconsiderate. Understandably, Koepka was not happy.

The PGA Tour isn’t going to do anything about this because they never do anything about slow play, but it sets a terrible example and it’s just flat-out brutal to watch.

5. Other than Lowry, the lasting image of this tournament will be Rory McIlroy’s furious charge to make the cut on Friday, which ultimately came up one shot short. He’ll be kicking himself for that opening round 79—how does a player as good as Rory McIlroy shoot 79?—but he’ll be equally proud of the way he bounced back on Friday with 65. He deserves all the praise he has received for the way he carried himself throughout what must have been an exceedingly difficult couple of days.

This latest in a growing list of McIlroy heartbreaks only adds to his legend and his appeal. We revere Rory for his unparalleled talent and syrupy swing and thoughtful interviews, but his shortcomings on big stages are just as integral to the Rory McIlroy experience. There is a certain romantic appeal to a player who doesn’t win as much as he should, who always lets us into his mind when he doesn’t have to, and who does so with a smile on his face. He missed the cut, but he made a ton of fans this week.

6. Another famous guy in Nike clothes missed the weekend. And, as always with Tiger, the takes were flowing early. He’s finished. Augusta was his swan song.

You can’t see this, but I’m throwing the proverbial water on the hypothetical fire right now. Yes, he looked tired and creaky. No, that does not mean he will continue to look tired and creaky and old from here on out. We need to start judging Tiger in the same way we judge Phil—by accepting that there will be some weeks where he simply doesn’t have it, and other ones where he looks like a man 15 years his junior.

There will be good days. There will be bad days. Certain factors will make good days more likely (warmth) and certain factors will make bad days more likely (cold). The days of Tiger being ruthlessly consistent, of him winning with his “B” or “C” game, of him never missing cuts—those are over. But Tiger will be just fine, and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t contend for at least one of the FedEx playoff events, all three of which will be played in the heat and humidity of summer on the East Coast.

7. Shugo Imahira is the best player on the Japan Golf Tour. He dominates over there. He’s finished in the top 10 in each of his seven starts this year, a run that has seen him reach No. 71 in the world rankings. Shugo Imahira has now played in seven major championships and missed the cut seven times.

This isn’t meant to pick on Imahira. It’s just a reminder that there are so many different levels of elite golf, and that shooting 66s and 67s is not even close to the same as shooting 66s and 67s on PGA Tour, let alone major championship, golf courses.

8. Located less than three miles from Royal Portrush, the 13th-century Dunluce Castle served as the inspiration for the Greyjoy Castle in Game of Thrones. It should come as no surprise, then, that Theon Greyjoy’s doppelganger Danny Willett had himself a solid week, finishing tied for sixth.

9. The best moment of Sergio Garcia’s career came just over two years ago, when he emphatically removed himself from the "Best Player to Never Win a Major" conversation with a victory at the Masters. There was reason to believe the victory would open the major floodgates, as there’s ample precedent for players not winning a major until their 30s and then winning a bunch. Phil Mickelson comes to mind, as does Padraig Harrington, and Garcia is every bit as talented as those two guys.

Two years later, we can definitively say that the floodgates remain shut.

After a T67 this week, Garcia has now made the cut in two majors in a row. That’s progress, considering he missed the cut in each of the seven majors prior. His finishes in the 11 majors since Augusta 2017:


What’s the reason behind this? Who knows. Maybe there’s been a drop of motivation after he finally did the one thing he hadn’t done in the sport. Maybe his priorities shifted when his daughter was born just before the 2018 Masters. Maybe he just hasn’t peaked at the right time. Maybe it’s been bad luck.

It’s most likely a combination of all those things, but it’s still shocking to see a player and ball striker of Garcia’s caliber continue to struggle like this in the majors.

10. What a debut Open for young Scotsman Robert MacIntyre, who claims to be 22 years old but looks closer to 12. The talented lefty had the guts to confront Kyle Stanley for not yelling FORE on Friday. The story, first reported by The Scotsman, is this: Stanley hit a few foul balls that were headed straight for the crowd, and he didn’t yell FORE. That did not sit well with MacIntyre, especially when one of the errant shot struck his caddie’s mother. So MacIntyre gave Stanley, a 31-year-old with two wins on the PGA Tour, a piece of his mind:

“Coming down the last I wasn’t happy with what had happened on the 17th.”

“My playing partner doesn’t shout ‘Fore’, his ball goes into the crowd, we’re shouting ‘Fore’ as the ball is coming into the crowd. He’s just standing watching it. And people didn’t have enough time to react when we shouted."

“It hit Greg’s mum. So I told him how it was. I said I wasn’t happy — and he didn’t really like my response. He’s the only one I’ve seen do that. It was straight into the crowd. It was into the crowd from the word go. And we’re expecting him to shout fore. She’s all right, I think, but it’s not what you want."

Stanley’s response, basically, was that a bunch of other people yelled, so it shouldn’t be a story. While probably true, this sort of misses the point. You should feel some sort of guilt when you hit a ball toward a crowd, and you should feel some sense of accountability. Just because you are on the PGA Tour does not mean you are above extending people common courtesies. It doesn’t mean you should rely on other people to have proper etiquette.

Oh, and MacIntyre snuck in a final-round 68 before conditions got bad to finish T6 and make more than $300,000. Quite the eventful week.

11. This week cannot be considered anything but a smashing success for the R&A, the European Tour, Royal Portrush and the country of Northern Ireland. The course rewarded good shots and punished poor ones, and it looked remarkably beautiful on television. Portrush’s quality was surpassed only by the passion of the fans all week, who sold out an Open Championship for the first time in its 150-plus year history. You have to think the Open will return to Portrush sooner rather than later. This week was an audition of sorts for Lady Portrush to enter the coveted Open rota. She got the part.

12. There was, however, one glaring deficiency this week: the Open’s official app/website. There was absolutely no way to follow a player shot-by-shot this week. This is because, among other reasons, the European Tour does not have a deal with ShotLink, the service that provides live updates for the PGA Tour. Still, this is absolutely inexcusable in 2019. If a player you were trying to follow was not on TV, the only way to do so was to watch the online leaderboard and wait until the hole score updated. And it wasn’t just that you couldn’t follow live; you also couldn’t see how a certain score was made on a hole. How did Player X make double bogey on 6? Did he hit it out of bounds? Three-putt? Unless you know a fan who was watching or can text the player personally, there was no way of finding out.

The only thing a golf tournament’s app/website absolutely has to have is shot-by-shot tracking. Heck, the Masters uploads virtually every shot from every player to its app/website immediately. The U.S. Open and PGA have their own tracking widgets. This week? Nothing. Unacceptable.

13. And just like that, the major season is over. This, of course, was the first year of the new major schedule, with the PGA in March and all four coming a month apart. It had a Triple Crown-like feel; just as the hoopla from one major died down, the buildup to the next began. Justin Rose voiced some concerns for the new schedule early in the week, pointing to the fact that the quick cadence makes it harder to peak four times a year.

I also have a problem with the new schedule, but it’s entirely selfish in nature: I have no idea what I’m going to do with myself for the nine months between now and Augusta. On a more serious note, the early returns of the PGA-to-May move are positive. Golf was never far from the sports world’s conscience this summer. There were four compelling majors, all for different reasons. And the players will enjoy the luxury of a more complete offseason come this fall. A smart change that’s yielding results. 

14. The state of Phil Mickelson’s game is downright depressing, and he’d be the first to tell you that. He missed the cut at the 3M Open—not exactly an elite field—then took some time off, took a six-day fasting retreat and lost 15 pounds in an effort to jolt his body and game into gear. He shot 76-74 an missed the cut by seven, his fifth missed cut in his last seven events.

Mickelson’s year is looking a lot like 2018—start fast, win early, fade hard. Perhaps that’s to be expected at 49 years old. Certainly he’d be better served by scaling down his still-demanding schedule. Here’s to hoping Mickelson figures it out and does so soon, because his streak of 25-plus years in the top 50 in the world is in serious jeopardy. And, more importantly, golf is a better sport when Phil Mickelson is a factor.

15. The coverage this week had its pros and cons. On the pro side, NBC/Golf Channel carried the tournament from start to finish, from first ball to last. Contrast this with the Masters, which doesn’t come on television until 3 EST the first two days. Also on the pro side, they managed to show at least one shot of each of the 156 players in the field.

Now, the cons. There were way too many commercials. This “play-through” commercial promotion, where they show commercials side-by-side with commentary-less play, feels like an excuse to simply show more commercials. They showed too many putts and not enough action. There wasn’t nearly enough technology involved—shots weren’t traced enough, we didn’t see enough trackman data, the camera shots were pedestrian—just a month after FOX delivered a delightfully new-age broadcast at the U.S. Open.

16. I need—I don’t want, I need—the European Tour to host a club-snapping competition between Henrik Stenson and Thomas Pieters. Stenson used textbook technique in snapping an iron after a cold, hard shank on 17 on Sunday.

But Thomas Pieters wrote the book on how to snap a club, and his ability to do so over his neck(!) is reminiscent of Bo Jackson breaking baseball bats like they were twigs.

Gonna go ahead and set the line at Pieters -160, Stenson +130.

17. There was a ton of debate over internal out of bounds this week, mainly due to two shots: Rory McIlroy’s first shot of the tournament, a snack hook out of bounds, and Rickie Fowler’s opening shot on Sunday, which got super unlucky to hit a marshall and kick out of play.

My take? Fans want it both ways—they complain about courses not being penal enough, and then they complain when a guy is penalized for hitting an iron or fairway wood 50 yards off line. If you hit a shot that poorly, you subject yourself to arbitrary boundaries and other weird stuff that just wouldn’t happen if you hit a better shot.

18. This feels like an appropriate time to thank everyone for reading and following all of our golf content here at SI.com. It’s been a ton of fun covering what has been a wild year of golf so far—remember, Tiger won the Masters!—and here’s to hoping the FedEx Cup playoffs keep the good stories flowing.

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