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Why Shane Lowry has extra motivation at the Open

OAKMONT, Pa. – A few years ago, the United States Golf Association had some fun with Shane Lowry.

Back in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, Lowry was paired for the first two rounds with Brendon de Jonge and Kevin Stadler. The common trait among them is that they all carry a few extra pounds.

Lowry didn’t appreciate the joke.

“They’ve obviously paired the three of us together for a certain reason,” he said then. “I’ve been working hard on my fitness most of the year. I’ve been getting a few digs here and there on social media and it’s just not nice.”

It’s been two years coming, but Lowry has a chance Sunday to get the last laugh. The 29-year-old Irishman takes a two-shot lead into the final day of the 116th U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club. He’s at 5-under through 14 holes of his third round.

“My game is good. Feel very comfortable out there,” Lowry said. “Quite happy that we didn’t have another four holes to play. It’s been a long day. So looking forward to getting out there tomorrow. This is right where you want to be.”

Fox’s television broadcast Saturday should have concluded with those three famous words: “To be continued.” There is a quite a cliffhanger developing.

None of the top seven players on the leader board have ever won a major championship, so how they handle those nerves on Oakmont’s linoleum-like greens will be compelling theatre.

“We all know that this course can jump up and bite you in a split second,” Lowry said. “So yeah, I’m two ahead with 22 holes left. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

At 41st in the world ranking, Lowry is not an unknown in the golf world. But he’s got just one top-10 finish in 11 starts this season on the PGA Tour, so he wasn’t on many lists of pre-tournament favorites.

“When I got here Sunday, I thought, ‘How am I going to get around here?’ I tried to come up with a game plan at the start of the week,” he said. “I’ve been doing quite well so far. … If I stick with that tomorrow, God knows where I’ll be.”

Unheralded PGA Tour rookie Andrew Landry, 28, is at 3-under through 13 holes, alone in second place. The world’s 624th-ranked player continues to show remarkable resolve. Consider: the two lowest-ranked players to win a major are Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel at No. 396 and No. 169, respectively. Even if you add those up, and it’s still a better ranking than where Landry is.

There’s also this: Should Landry pull it out, he’d become just the third player in the last 103 years to win in his first start in a major championship, joining Curtis at the 2003 Open Championship and Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship.

After those two, it’s the heartbreak kids – Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia – who are doing their best to bury their past major-championship failures. Combined, they have nine second-place finishes, 25 top fives and 48 top 10s in majors – all without a victory.

They are tied for third at 2-under, with Westwood having played 15 holes in the third round, Garcia 14 and Johnson 13.

“There’s no monkeys (on my back). That’s nonsense,” Garcia said of the pressure that comes with trying to win his first major. “At the end of the day, all I can do is give myself chances. Play well. And if it happens, it happens.”

Johnson is the only player in the last 30 years to be in sixth place or better following 11 rounds at the U.S. Open.

“I’ve been in the position before,” he said. “I know what to expect. I know how to handle it. So hopefully, the ball falls my way tomorrow.”

As for world No. 1 Jason Day, consider him officially lurking. Day shot a round of 4-under 66 Saturday that matched the low score for the third round. That moved him into a tie for eighth place at 1-over.

“I kind of started firing – not on all cylinders – but started firing at my target and felt really good about my swing,” Day said. “Even par was the final score for me that I was trying to reach. … If I can get to even par, great. If I can get to 1-under, great. Hopefully at the end of the day I’m under par somewhere and that definitely gives me a shot.”

Day will get the benefit of some extra rest by finishing his third round Saturday. Those who didn’t will return to the course at 7 a.m. Surely, his name on the leader board will catch their attention – which is exactly what he’s hoping for.

“I feel like if I can just put my name on the scoreboard, hopefully they’ll start to slow down a little bit,” he said. “I’ve got to try to do some catching up.”

Lowry wasn’t shy in saying he’ll keep an eye on the leader board.

“I like to know where I stand,” he said. “It’s up to me, then, to go and hit the good shots.”

If Day can track down Lowry and the rest of the field, he will become the first player since Jack Fleck at the 1955 U.S. Open to win a major with a score of 76 or worse. That was his total in the first round.

“The first round kind of killed me here,” he said. “Hopefully, I give myself an opportunity tomorrow. I just want it to play hard and fast. I think the harder, the better, like a normal U.S. Open Sunday should be.”

He’s likely to get his wish. Oakmont continues to firm up after heavy rain Wednesday and Thursday, and the USGA will likely be in no hurry to change that.

Green speeds reached 14 on the Stimpmeter Saturday, and can be expected to go up in the final round.

“The main thing for me today was just not to give myself any of those 5-, 6-footers for par,” said South African Branden Grace, who tied Day with a 66 and is alone in sixth place at 1-under. “There’s a couple of putts maybe 20, 25 feet that you’re actually not trying to make, you’re just trying to get it close.”

Who will best be able to do that with the pressure of a major championship hanging over them? The answer will present itself Sunday.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com