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AKRON, Ohio – Shane Lowry remained somewhat of a mystery to the golf audience outside Ireland and parts of Europe.
He won the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009, and he picked up his first win as a pro three years later in Portugal. He has been showing up at the majors the last few years, though this is the first year he has been eligible for all of them.
Jim Furyk played with him on Saturday at the Bridgestone Invitational and was asked what he thought of the 28-year-old Irishman's game. Furyk said he was impressed.
One day later, so was everyone else.
On a strong course at Firestone, with a trio of major champions chasing him, Lowry delivered the biggest round of his career. He played bogey-free for a 4-under 66, built a two-shot lead and produced two amazing shots and two clutch par saves for a two-shot victory over Bubba Watson.
"It doesn't get any better than that, does it?" Lowry said. "To beat those guys down the stretch on a golf course like this ... it just shows a lot about my game, that it's good enough to compete at any level."
The two shots that stood out involved trees.
Lowry was so far left off the tee at No. 10 that he received a free drop because the signage on the 11th tee box was in his way. Still to be navigated was a 50-foot tree about 40 yards in front of him, so he opened the face of a pitching wedge and let it rip — over the green, onto the green with a bounce that fed it to tap-in range for birdie.
"I was just trying to get up around the green and make a 4," Lowry said.
He finished in style. Clinging to a one-shot lead and a minor case of the nerves, he hit his worst drive of the day so far left that it was buried in deep rough with more trees in front of him. Lowry hammered a sand wedge through the tree, hopeful of getting it close to the green for a reasonable shot at par.
Imagine his surprise when after all the clatter of branches, he saw the ball hit the green and heard the crowd roar. It settled just over 10 feet away, and for good measure, Lowry dropped that in for a final birdie and a certain win.
"It's fairly special to do that against such a good field, to shoot bogey-free 66 on a golf course like that," Lowry said. "I know it will stay with me now for the rest of my career. I've done everything I needed to do today."
Watson thought he hit two good sand wedges for a good look at birdie on the 16th and 18th holes. Both bounced hard and left him long putts that he missed, and he had to settle for a 66 and a runner-up finish.
Furyk and Justin Rose, who shared the lead and were two shots clear of Lowry, were annoyed for different reasons after both shot 2-over 72 to tie for third. Rose hit the ball beautifully. Furyk did not. Rose couldn't buy a putt. Furyk, who relied so heavily on his putter for the opening two rounds, didn't make enough to cover his errors.
But this day belonged to Lowry, a gregarious personality with deep pride in family and heritage. As he sat down next to his trophy, he quickly moved a stand holding two Irish flags closer into view.
He narrowly qualified through the category of top 50 in the world — he was No. 48 and stayed there at the cutoff. He became the first non-PGA Tour member to win a World Golf Championship since Martin Kaymer in 2011 at the HSBC Champions.
And he was worthy of the title — not so much from the shots out of the trees, but the pars that win tournaments.
Right when it appeared he would lose some of his two-shot lead with a tee shot into a bunker on the 14th, Lowry poured in an 18-foot par putt. And on the 17th, after watching Watson make his own escape from the trees for an unlikely birdie, Lowry knocked in a 6-foot par putt.
Before long, he was on his way to the PGA Championship with the trophy and $1.527 million in the bank from his victory. He finished at 11-under 269.
Back home in Ireland, the celebration was already under way.
His younger brother last week won the Mullingar Scratch Cup, a big amateur event that Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and other top Irish stars have won. Now there's another trophy for the Lowry household, and it's a big one.