Ireland’s Shane Lowry hailed the best day of his career after taking command of the 148th Open at Royal Portrush.
Roared on by a capacity crowd, Lowry carded a stunning third round of 63 to finish 16 under par, four shots ahead of England’s Tommy Fleetwood.
“It’s the most incredible day I’ve had on the golf course,” said Lowry, whose 54-hole total of 197 eclipsed the previous Open record of 198 set by Tom Lehman at Royal Lytham in 1996.
“Honestly, walking from the green to the next tee the people are literally a yard away from you, roaring in your face as loud as they can. If you have to get up and hit a drive down a tight fairway, it’s fairly difficult.
“I thought I dealt with it very well today and hopefully I do the same tomorrow.
“Every time I got over a putt I wanted to hole it and hear that roar again. I said to Bo (Martin, his caddie) walking off 17, ‘We might never experience anything like the next half-hour again, so let’s make the most of it’.
“I just felt so comfortable out there and hope I do tomorrow. I have a tough 24 hours ahead of me, but there’s nowhere I would rather be. I have a four-shot lead in an Open in Ireland. Tomorrow is going to be incredible no matter what happens.”
Lowry also held a four-shot lead after 54 holes of the US Open in 2016, only to struggle to a closing 76 and finish three behind Dustin Johnson.
“I hope I’m going to be able to deal with it better,” he added. “I know it’s going to be difficult and hard but hopefully I am ready for it.
“I learned a lot about myself at Oakmont. I’m going to learn a lot about myself tomorrow. Tomorrow is a huge day in my career but it probably doesn’t mean as much to me as it did then, which is going to make it a little bit easier.
“I feel like I’m a different person. I don’t think I’m a much different golfer, but I feel like I’m a different person now. I think that’s what will help me tomorrow.
“At the time of Oakmont my golf just meant a lot more to me back then than it does now. I’m not saying that it doesn’t mean everything, it’s my career. But I’ve got certain things in my life that make it different. I’ve got family now.”
That family is wife Wendy and two-year-old daughter Iris and Lowry added: “No matter what I shoot tomorrow my family will be waiting for me.
“At Abu Dhabi at the start of this year, four ahead going into the final round, I said to my wife just have Iris there waiting for me when I finish, because no matter what happens I’m going to be either standing there with the trophy or it’s going to be a disappointing day.
“And it’s going to be the same thing tomorrow.”
Tommy Fleetwood will channel the spirit of the Ryder Cup as he attempts to battle the weather and a fervent Irish crowd cheering on runaway Open leader Shane Lowry.
The Southport golfer, who was brilliant in scoring four points for Europe’s victorious team against the United States in Paris in September, was in the mix for 14 holes of his third round at Royal Portrush, just one adrift of the Irishman.
However, three birdies in four holes coming home for Lowry – roared on by ecstatic galleries packed full of fans from just across the border as well as thousands of locals – took the initiative away from Fleetwood.
The two will go head-to-head in Sunday’s final group and the Englishman knows he will be hopelessly outnumbered when it comes to support, having experienced a mere taste of what is to come playing in the flight ahead of Lowry on the third day.
“I’m happy to be in the mix, happy to play my part in the atmosphere today. The Ryder Cup is pretty much that with a few more people,” he said.
“For sure tomorrow playing with Shane it’s going to be more challenging to control yourself in the atmosphere and being in the middle of that but that’s what we’re here for.
“I’ve had my fair share of support for the first three days. Hopefully there will still be some people out there rooting for me (because) being in that group it’s going to be harder than (for) the rest of the field.
“But you play your game. You do your thing. I’m very, very happy to have that challenge.
“If you had said at the start of today, at the start of the week, at the start of the year, ‘You’re in the last group Sunday at The Open and playing with Shane, and the majority of the crowd might not be with you’, I would have said ‘Yeah, that’s fine’.
“I’m looking forward to it, to be honest with you. It’s going to be another chapter in my career, no matter what happens, and it’s going to be a very special day.”
The situation was somewhat harsh on Fleetwood, who was flawless in shooting a five-under par 66.
It just happened that Lowry was in the form of his life in carding a 63.
“I think the last three or four holes it was strange because I’d gone bogey-free, played really well and had my chances on 11, 14 and missed the (birdie) putt 17.
“It was almost like I can easily get frustrated because Shane is doing so well and how well he’s playing.
“But you have to look at it realistically. I had a great day. I had one of the best rounds of the day and I was bogey-free.
“Shane just played great and I’m four back. But that’s it, I’m just happy with how I played.”
With rain and wind gusting up to 30mph on Sunday, Fleetwood has to hope he can cope better than his playing partner, although he accepts Lowry has plenty of experience of dealing with tough conditions.
“I personally don’t mind the conditions, whatever they are. I feel like I’ve had some of my best rounds in terrible, terrible conditions, where I’ve enjoyed grinding it out,” added the Englishman.
“Shane has definitely not played in sunshine and no wind all his life so it’s not going to be a problem for him, either.”
Lee Westwood believes leading The Open on home soil will intensify the pressure on Shane Lowry “100 times”.
Englishman Westwood shot 70 on Saturday to take a tie for sixth place at eight under par heading into Sunday’s final round at Royal Portrush.
County Offaly man Lowry boasts the only sub-200 score after three rounds, with an outright lead of 16 under thanks to a stunning eight under 63.
Golf stars and supporters treat the island of Ireland in its entirety, and such was the support for Lowry that almost 15 minutes after he had completed his round, a packed 18th hole grandstand was still chanting his name.
Westwood expects the forecast driving rain and wind to level up Sunday’s decisive skirmish though, and is anticipating a nervy day for home favourite Lowry.
“Shane’s in the lead, he’s in a big lead, but no lead is big enough when the weather gets bad on a links course,” said Westwood, who holds a record nine top-three finishes without winning a major.
“And he’s going to have an awful lot of pressure on him hitting in front of a home crowd.
“So he’ll be nervous, it’ll be a tough long day for him: the last day of a major is always long, but it’s going to be 100 times worse for him.
“I’ll just go out and try to play well. You can still shoot a low score around this golf course.
“It’s such a good design that even in a really strong wind if you hit good shots you can still make birdies.
“I’d like to be a bit closer but I’m still in there with a chance, I think.
“It was a good day, I really enjoyed it. I got off to a good start obviously, with birdies on two, three and four.
“I hit a lot of good shots after that but just didn’t capitalise. I hit a poor shot at 10, I should really have backed off the tee shot, used my experience.
“I think Shane hit one in close on nine, the crowd put me off a little bit, so my fault for not resetting.
“But other than that I played nicely, hit a lot of fairways, a lot close, a lot of putts that could have gone in.”
Westwood is in a tie for sixth with American Rickie Fowler on -8 under, eight shots adrift of Lowry. He dropped a shot at the 10th, edging away with a bogey after extended deliberation about how to negotiate finding heavy rough.
The 46-year-old insisted he never considered pushing for a free drop, intent on prizing the spirit of the game over personal gain.
“It just embedded in the ground, but I couldn’t have played a shot even if it had been sat on the tee,” said Westwood.
“So just accepted a penalty and took it back in line.
“I could have had a free drop if I thought I could have hit a shot, but if it hadn’t have been plugged and in the same place I couldn’t have in my own conscious have played a shot. So I took a penalty.
“It’s against the spirit of the game, and I’m not interested in gaining an advantage in a situation like that.
“I actually said to the rules official ‘there’s no relief for embedded balls in The Open is there?’
“And she said ‘well actually we’ve changed the rules’. So I was just going to go and drop it anyway. So they brought another rules official and he explained the rules.
“And I said ‘no I wouldn’t have been able to hit it really’. I could have faked it and said I’d hit it left hand over my shoulder.
“But you just let your conscience be your guide in situations like that.”