The Open 2019: How every storyline could play out Sunday at Royal Portrush

July 20, 2019

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Well, that was a thrilling day of golf, but Saturday’s primary purpose is to get us to Sunday. Without further ado, here are all the juicy storylines heading into what is shaping up as an epic final round to the 148th Open Championship.

Will there be a pint of Guinness left on the entire Irish island if Shane Lowry wins?

This rotund, scruffy, fun-loving character is right off the pages of Finnegans Wake. The crowd that carried Rory McIlroy home on Friday evening will seem tame compared to what awaits Lowry if he’s around the lead late on Sunday. (Yes, the players from the Republic of Ireland have been embraced by the Ulster crowd, a small but notable step toward the dream of uniting the north and south of Ireland.) Lowry’s homemade swing occasionally deserts him — fore left! — but he is routinely saved by some of the best hands in golf. For pure golf-nerd pleasure, few things can beat watching the chipping contests that Lowry engages in during practice rounds with Padraig Harrington, who happens to be the last Irishman to win the Open. (Rory McIlroy has never been more of Northern Ireland than after these these two heart-wrenching days at Royal Portrush.) Lowry has had only one really good chance to win a major: the 2016 U.S. Open, where he took a four-stroke lead into the final round, during which he posted a wobbly 76 to get run over by Dustin Johnson. As we saw this week with McIlroy, the homefield advantage can cut both ways. How will Lowry channel all the emotion and pressure? That is now the defining question of this Open. Along with…

What havoc awaits in by far the nastiest weather of the week?

The Sunday forecast is apocalyptic, calling for gusts of 30 miles per hour or more and periods of drenching rain. It’s looking so ominous the R & A moved up the final round tee times by an hour, citing fan safety. In these conditions all bets are off; one hollow strike and the ball can flutter into oblivion. Of course, Lowry grew up in this nastiness, as did Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose. (Brooks Koepka of Florida and J.B. Holmes of Kentucky did not.) The worst of the weather is forecast to arrive around 4 p.m. when the final group will be making the turn. This opens up an intriguing possibility…

Can any early starters go out early, post a number and win whilst sipping tea in the clubhouse?

One pressroom swing expert who shall remain nameless (his initials are LKD) expects Lowry’s handsy, swipey swing to crumble in the wind. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say it does. That puts the theoretical lead at 12 under, bringing into contention anyone at, say, five under or better, should they play lights-out golf. That happens to be the score of one Xander Schauffele, who has been on a run of fine play in the majors and now has serious red-ass over the R & A putting his driver in timeout on the eve of the tournament. He might shoot 62 just to stick it to those tweedy old blokes in dandruff-flecked blazers.

Lurking at six under is Matt Kuchar, arguably the dreaded Best Player Never To Have Won A Major. For Kooch, what could be a better way to put an exclamation point on this season of controversy than a backdoor victory for his first major? Also at six under are two supreme ball-bashers in Henrik Stenson and Alex Noren, who both have the requisite piercing traj to survive the coming gales.

In crazy weather, grit may be the most precious commodity, and that is the sub-specialty of Jordan Spieth (seven under). On the same score is Jon Rahm, who has been on the verge of a couple low rounds this week but unable to get out of his own way. If the two-time champ of the Irish Open and budding links master can’t navigate Portrush’s heaving terrain, who can? Okay, perhaps all of these blokes are simply too far back. Let’s focus on Sunday’s final two pairings…

Brooks Koepka is trying to finish one of the greatest major seasons ever.
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On the greens, will Brooks Koepka pull his head out of his…head? 

The endless missed putts have left Koepka so mental that on the back nine on Saturday he shouted to the heavens, ”I can’t make a putt.” Actually, he just whispered it to himself, but Koepka is so undemonstrative the venting was still notable. But Koepka produced a gorgeous lag putt on 17 after driving the green of the par-4 and then rolled in a 25-footer on 18 for crucial back-to-back birdies to give him some momentum heading into Sunday. We know Koepka is the game’s coolest customer and most ruthless closer, two qualities that will be deeply important during Sunday’s war of attrition. But he’s still seven back of Lowry, leaving us to wonder…

Is this finally Tommy Fleetwood’s time?

For much of Sunday he matched Lowry shot-for-shot until his putter cooled. Tommy Lad is now four strokes off the lead but he is playing with an ease and precision that could be decisive. But only one thing is certain: his hair is going to look great blowing in the wind.