SANDWICH, England — Shane Lowry kept the silver claret jug for 722 days, the most by any British Open champion in some 75 years. He returned it on Monday to the R&A at Royal St. George’s with mixed emotions.
Sure, he was sad to part with it. But that meant it was time to play golf’s oldest championship, and that was plenty enticing to Lowry and the rest of the field.
“Coming back here and having the big grandstands and having the crowds out there and all that type of stuff, and everything that comes along with the Open Championship, I think that’s going to be pretty cool this week,” Lowry said.
“I’m really looking forward to the week ahead,” he said after returning golf’s oldest trophy. “Not that I’m ready to give the claret jug back. I’m happy it’s here and I’m happy I’m here defending, and I’m really looking forward to the week.”
The British Open was the only major canceled last year by the COVID-19 pandemic as the others were moved around to different spots on the calendar. Now it’s the last major of the year that has brought reminders the pandemic has not entirely gone away.
Zach Johnson, the 2015 champion at St. Andrews, saw his streak of 69 consecutive majors end when he tested positive for the coronavirus before boarding a charter flight from the John Deere Classic in Illinois.
Johnson is the fifth player to be withdrawn from a major championship since the pandemic, but the first since Sergio Garcia and Joaquin Niemann had positive tests ahead of the 2020 Masters in November.
And while the British Open might look normal, especially when 32,000 fans start arriving for the opening round on Thursday, it will be anything but that off the course.
Strict protocols from the R&A forbid players (or caddies) from staying with one another. Each player can have a core group of three additional people, which includes a caddie, coach, manager, family member or a trainer.
They are not to go to grocery stores or restaurants or otherwise mix with the general public.
It’s different, to be sure. Lowry, however, doesn’t see it as a burden. After all, this is a major championship and he’s the defending champion. Even as an Irishman, he’s not one to hit the town at night looking for some diversion.
“It’s a bubble, but I don’t think I’ll be doing anything different than I normally do,” Lowry said. “I come to the golf course, I play, and I go home and we have dinner in the house, and that’s it. … Watch a bit of TV and have some food in the evenings.
“You don’t do anything else the week of big tournaments. You’re kind of resting up as much as you can, and you’re obviously here playing and practicing all day every day when you’re here.”
Practice was limited for Lowry on Monday with a gray sky and rain over the southeastern English links course. He walked the front nine until seeing what appeared to be a break in the weather, and then played 12 holes.
The rain has left Royal St. George’s slightly softer, which could eliminate some of the wild bounces for which these rolling fairways are famous. It has been described in some quarters as playing golf on the surface of the moon.
The last player to win back-to-back at the British Open was another Irishman — Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie in 2007 and Royal Birkdale in 2008.
Lowry had missed the cut in four successive Opens when he rolled into Royal Portrush in 2019 and won by six shots. He recalls feeling good about his game that week. Then again, he felt good about his game at Torrey Pines last month for the U.S. Open, didn’t break par and finished 19 shots behind Jon Rahm.
The only thing he’s sure about this week is it will be louder than what he’s used to hearing at a major, which is music to his ears. The previous three majors allowed roughly 10,000 fans a day. The allowance for Royal St. George’s is about 75% of normal capacity.
Lowry thinks he struggled in 2020 in part because spectators were kept away. The silence was dull. Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods were among those who said they had a harder time getting motivated without the energy of the gallery.
“I don’t want to be here playing in front of nobody, so I think it’s great that there’s 32,000 people, and I was very excited when I heard that there was going to be that many people here,” Lowry said.
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