British Open champs Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry sputter after quick starts

Two former British Open champions looked to be on the cusp of climbing back into contention to win another Claret Jug in the third round Saturday at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, but neither fully seized the opportunity.

Rory McIlroy, the 2014 winner, had it going in his morning round … and then he didn’t.

Shane Lowry, the 2019 winner and de-facto defending champion because the 2020 Open was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thought he was on the verge of making a big moving-day run, but his putter let him down.

Both McIlroy and Lowry shot 1-under 69s and both walked off the course believing they left a lot of shots on the course.

At the end of the day, McIlroy, who continues to say his game is “close,’’ merely provided a tease. He went out in 4-under 31 and got to as low as 4-under for the tournament on the front nine, and it looked like he was ready to make a charge.

“The front nine, Rory was lighting it up a bit,’’ said Richard Bland, who was paired with McIlroy.

Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry
Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry
Getty Images; AP

Then came the back nine, where McIlroy failed to birdie a hole and had three bogeys.

“Sort of a tale of two nines,’’ said McIlroy, who trails third-round leader Louis Oosthuizen by 11 strokes. “I played great on the front nine, hit some really good iron shots and converted some putts and really got it going. Then the back nine played tough. They’re sort of tucking the pins away. They’ve stretched the golf course out to as long as it can play.

“Certainly, it felt like a better round than 1-under par, but it was encouraging to see some of the golf that I played on that front nine,’’ said McIlroy, who trails leader Louis Oosthuizen by . “It’s just a matter of trying to keep that going and try to turn those nine-hole stretches into 18-hole stretches, and then those 18-hole stretches into whole tournaments. It’s getting there.’’

When he finished his round, McIlroy was 10 shots behind leader Louis Oosthuizen, who hadn’t even started his day. It’s safe to say he’s out of contention.

That’s going to leave McIlroy without a win in his last 26 majors, dating to his 2014 PGA Championship victory. That is a considerable drought considering McIlroy won his four career major championships in his first 24 starts as a professional.

Lowry said he walked off the course with “mixed emotions because I played great [and] I left a lot of shots out there.’’

“One-under was probably the worst score I could have shot, which was very disappointing on a day like today because I felt like I could have shot 3-, 4-, 5-under out there, and I would have been right in the tournament,’’ Lowry went on. “I’m disappointed, but I’m kind of proud of myself how I battled back and how I finished. I holed three nice putts on 16, 17, 18. But other than that, I missed four putts I’d say inside four or five feet, which you can’t do on days like today, which is disappointing.

“I’m disappointed because I feel like I’m probably too far back. I’m not sure I can win from here, but I can shoot, the way I’m playing, 6-under. If 10-, 11-under is the winning score, yes, I can obviously win, but I’m not sure. I think the winning score is probably going to be better than that. But who knows?’’

Lowry said he’s happy with what he called “a pretty strong defense’’ of his title.

“Mentally, I’ve been good, and I’ve been fighting very hard this year, and I feel like I’m playing great golf,’’ he said. “It’s a good position to be in. I’ve been enjoying it. I’ve enjoyed that Claret Jug for the last two years, and I’d dearly love to have it again. If it’s not this year, hopefully again down the road. I think I have about 25 or 26 more attempts.’’

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