Shane Lowry has been wearing the skin off the palms of his hands in preparation for 2020 and his assault on qualifying for the Ryder Cup.
For the second year running, The Open champion has been knocking the winter rust off his game in Dubai in preparation for his first start of the season.
He’s aware that he will likely need to win at least once between now and the end of the qualifying campaign on September 13 to clinch an automatic qualifying berth in Pádraig Harrington’s European side for September’s clash with the USA at Whistling Straits.
But while he also knows that he would have an excellent chance of winning one of Harrington’s three wildcards, the Offalyman is keen to make it on merit and this week’s Hong Kong Open offers him the ideal opportunity to hit the ground running.
“I don’t feel different, but it has given me a strong underlying confidence,” Lowry told The National in the UAE of the biggest benefit to becoming a major champion. “I still want to improve and every time I go out on the golf course try be the best golfer I can be.”
With top-50 in the world status a prerequisite for Ryder Cup selection in Europe since 2008 — 53rd ranked Paul McGinley was the last player from outside the top 50 to play on the team in 2004 — Lowry broke the back of Ryder Cup qualification last year by following his win in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship with that unforgettable, six-shot major triumph at Royal Portrush.
Now that he’s a top-20 player, he’s ideally placed now to benefit from his presence in all the majors and big World Golf Championship events.
But he also knows that he now has to make sure 2019 was not in vain and that likely means adding to his haul of victories and his rate of top 10 finishes.
Winning in Hong Kong this week, where the world No 19 is the highest ranked player in the field after American world No 16 Tony Finau, would be a dream start before his title defence in Abu Dhabi next week and the battle for huge world ranking points in Saudi Arabia.
A cursory look at the last two European teams shows that just one automatic qualifier failed to win during the qualifying period — Spain’s Rafael Cabrera Bello in 2015-16, when he racked up nine top-10 finishes to make Darren Clarke’s side through the World Points List.
Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood also failed to win that year but their vast Ryder Cup experience earned them wildcards alongside the Belgian rookie, Thomas Pieters, who won the final qualifying event.
Of Thomas Bjorn’s 2018 winning team in Paris, only Sweden’s Henrik Stenson failed to win during the campaign while his fellow wildcards, Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter shared four wins between them.
Henrik Stenson. Photo by Golffile
With a major among his five worldwide wins, Lowry’s CV is superior to those of recent European rookies such as Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm, Alex Norén, Thorbjørn Olesen, Chris Wood, Andy Sullivan, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Cabrera Bello.
It’s also at least as good as England’s Danny Willett, who won the Masters during the 2016 campaign.
Lowry is unfortunate that his stellar 2019 season counted for nothing in terms of Ryder Cup points but it would be a major surprise if he failed to make the team as a major winner.
Since the inaugural Ryder Cup in 1927, no European-born major winner has failed to play in a Ryder Cup.
The strength in depth of US golf, on the other hand, has left a host of American major winners without the honour.
Lucas Glover (2009 US Open), Todd Hamilton (2004 Open), Shaun Micheel (2003 US PGA), Rich Beem (2002 US PGA), Mark Brooks (1996 US PGA), Steve Jones (1996 US Open), John Daly (1991 US PGA,1995 Open), Jeff Sluman (1988 US PGA) and Bob Tway (1986 US PGA) all failed to make US Ryder Cup teams over the past 33 years alone.
Daly regrets the absence of a Ryder Cup cap on his CV, having never played consistently well enough to qualify automatically during his peak years.
But the Ryder Cup holds such cachet in European golf that Lowry suffered on the sidelines having missed out on Ryder Cup qualification in 2016 and 2018.
“When you are a player, and you feel like you are good enough to be there, you are watching it, and there’s something deep down, a bit of jealousy in there,” he said in the build up to the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship last year.
“I am not old, but I am getting on. I am 33 for the next Ryder Cup, and I need to start making a move and making one soon.”
Of course, the Clara man has nothing left to prove in the game but Harrington knows that few Americans would relish facing a player of the Clara man’s calibre in Wisconsin.
"Shane is a form player,” Harrington said of Lowry’s Open win last year. “What he realises, or what he should realise, looking from the outside, is that while the belief brings a huge amount of pressure, he also deals very well with the pressure when he is there.
“I thought he could go the whole way pretty much from the start, but I didn't think he would do it the way he did… Most players back off but he kept going forward because he has a deep-down belief.”
While he has been immense in several Ryder Cups, most notably as Colin Montgomerie’s partner at Oakland Hills in 2004, Harrington will be remembered for his major wins and he knows that Lowry has also secured his golfing immortality.
"It can never be taken away,” Harrington said. “Your name is going down in history forever.”
With the pain of that 2016 US Open disappointment washed away by his brilliance of Royal Portrush, Lowry also knows that he has little left to prove and wishes only to be as good as he can be.
As he said in RTE Radio’s recent documentary on his major win: “I have won the tournaments you want to win. I've won the Irish Open, I've won a World Golf Championship, I've won a major. What else is there left for me to achieve? I don't aspire to be world No 1. I just aspire to be the best version of me that I can.”
With the US likely to boast yet another star studded Ryder Cup side, it’s time for Europe to see Lowry 2.0 in full flow.
Rory McIlroy, meanwhile, has confirmed that he will return to action in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in two weeks.
The world No 2 made his debut in the event last year and finished tied for fifth, seven shots behind winner Justin Rose.
Rory McIlroy. Photo by Golffile.
Organisers are still waiting to see if Masters champion Tiger Woods, a seven-time winner of the San Diego event, will commit to the event.
McIlroy joins Rose, local hero Phil Mickelson, Dubai Duty Free Irish Open champion Jon Rahm and world number eight Xander Schauffele in a star-studded field.
Schauffele began 2020 by losing out to Justin Thomas in a three-way playoff for the Sentry Tournament of Champions that also featured the controversial Patrick Reed.
Just a month after suffering a two-stroke penalty for improving his lie in a waste area at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, Reed was heckled by a fan shouting "cheater" on the third extra hole.
With Schauffele eliminated after the first extra hole, Reed had an eight-foot birdie putt to force Thomas to make from four feet to extend the playoff but missed as the fan loudly screamed "cheater" as he made his stroke.
Reed, who shot a seven-under 66 to make the playoff, watched 26-year old Thomas putt out for his 12th PGA Tour win but did not refer to the incident afterwards.
"It's all about winning," Reed said. "At the end of the day, I did what I had to do today, I mean, I went out and had to go shoot a low number—especially with how windy it was today—to give myself an opportunity, and I did.
"Unfortunately, I had two putts to close it, and one of them I got gusted on and this last one, with the wind and the break, it got me again."
Thomas joins Tiger Woods (34 wins) and Jack Nicklaus (20) as the only players to accumulate 12 or more wins before the age of 27 in the last 60 years.