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On The Open's first visit to Northern Ireland since 1951, Shane Lowry became the latest in a string of Irish golfers who have enjoyed recent success in a major championship.

Lowry's stunning six-shot triumph at Royal Portrush on Sunday represented the 10th major victory by a player from either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland in the last 12 years.

The new Open champion, who hails from County Westmeath in the Republic, follows in the footsteps of Padraig Harrington, the winner of The Open in 2007 and 2008 and also the US PGA Championship victor in the second of those seasons.

Northern Ireland, meanwhile, has had three major champions in the past decade, with Rory McIlroy winning four titles and triumphs also coming the way of Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke.

Since the start of 2007, the year Harrington first tasted Open glory, only the United States - with half of the 52 titles since then - can boast more major wins than either Northern Ireland or the Republic, and Lowry denied America a clean sweep in 2019.

We look at how many major winners have come from each country in that period.

 

Major wins by country since 2007:

26 - UNITED STATES - Brooks Koepka (4), Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth (both 3), Zach Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson (all 2), Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Jason Dufner, Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Gary Woodland.

6 - NORTHERN IRELAND - Rory McIlroy (4), Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke.

4 - REPUBLIC OF IRELAND - Padraig Harrington (3), Shane Lowry; SOUTH AFRICA - Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Ernie Els.

2 - ARGENTINA - Angel Cabrera (2); GERMANY - Martin Kaymer (2); ENGLAND - Justin Rose, Danny Willett, AUSTRALIA - Adam Scott, Jason Day.

1 - SOUTH KOREA - Y.E. Yang; SWEDEN - Henrik Stenson; SPAIN - Sergio Garcia; ITALY - Francesco Molinari.

The 148th Open Championship came to its rain-drenched climax on Sunday as Shane Lowry claimed the Claret Jug.

It concluded a wonderful week at Royal Portrush and Lowry's victory thwarted an American clean sweep of the majors.

That an Irishman triumphed on the island of Ireland certainly raised the noise levels on the Dunluce Links.

And while the final-day field battled the elements, Omnisport's reporters on the ground were attempting to stay dry and pick out a few unseen tidbits for the last instalment of The Open Daily Diary.

TWO GOING ON 30

After Lowry prevailed, he hugged runner-up Tommy Fleetwood, but that wasn't the most heart-warming sight on the final green.

That came when Lowry's two-year-old daughter came onto the putting surface and was swept up in her father's arms.

It is a scene Lowry hopes to repeat as he expects to be making many more Open Championship visits with his little girl in tow.

"Look, I'm going to be coming back on another 27 Opens to play," he said. "She's going to be nearly 30 when I play my last one."

MIND THE ROPE, LADS

There's a wonderful vantage point midway down the first, where you are pretty much in the landing zone, can see the players hit off the tee and watch them on the greens.

One of our reporters was stationed here early on Sunday to take in some of the morning starters, and as ever there was an enthusiastic group creeping ever forward to try to get the best view possible.

"Lads, this is the second time - stay behind the white line," one steward warned as the group took the ropes a few feet inside the out of bounds line."

"Sorry mate, we did help you find those two balls, though," one replied.

"That's true... fair deal." Compromise is lovely.

YOUR WORK HERE IS DONE

There's an odd experience to be had on the final day of an Open if you choose to walk a few holes in reverse order once the final group has passed through.

Wandering from the third back towards the media centre, having caught Lowry and Fleetwood card a par and a bogey respectively, you see the holes where the work is done for the week.

The second and first, their fairways still lined with boundary ropes, lay dormant, with no spectators at their side. The tee boxes waiting patiently for players who will not arrive.

This Omnisport reporter found it a little bit emotional, but was stirred from his sombre reflections by a huge roar from down on the fourth green. A birdie for Lowry! And another hole had served its purpose.

MEDIA LEAKS IN THE MIXED ZONE

Omnisport covered all parts of The Open at Royal Portrush, including the mixed zone where players chat to reporters after a round.

The heavy rain was causing particular concern for our man on the ground in the interview area when water started to make an unwelcome appearance inside the tent.

Clearly he needed to adopt the spirit of those hardy souls in the Fan Village who saw the saturated ground as a prime spot for a bit of diving, with several of them sliding face down across the floor.

One word was prevalent ever since Shane Lowry surged into contention at The Open this weekend. Oakmont.

"Oakmont was so long ago and I was a lot younger," Lowry said after moving into a co-share of the lead on Friday.

"I feel like if I get the opportunity this week I'll be better. It definitely won't affect me, what happened in Oakmont."

Amid the chanting, raucous cheers and sheer euphoria that greeted Lowry walking off the 18th green at the conclusion of the greatest round of his life at Royal Portrush on Saturday, there was an unsettling sense of deja vu due to his four-stroke advantage.

Three years ago, Lowry held the same lead going into the final 18 holes of the U.S. Open. He had one hand on the trophy, a major breakthrough in his grasp.

Yet in golf things are never that simple and that fateful Sunday just outside of Pittsburgh was dragged back to the fore for Lowry this week.

The pressure of holding a significant lead in a major for the first time was evident. Lowry never recovered from a difficult start at Oakmont and struggled to a six-over 76, eventually finishing three shots adrift of Dustin Johnson – who himself had to endure a nervy penalty-shot controversy to win what is to date his only victory in one of golf's big four.

However, at Portrush, Lowry only fleetingly betrayed his insistence that no mental scars remained from the most painful of experiences. A wayward drive down the first and an approach into the greenside bunker leading to an opening bogey would surely have had his heart rate skyrocketing.

Lowry is a different man to three years ago, though. He has a young daughter, Iris. His priorities and perspective have changed.

"If I'm sitting here this time tomorrow evening it will be one of the biggest things that ever happened to me, there's no denying that," Lowry commented in a news conference on Saturday.

"But I just felt at the time in Oakmont my golf 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. No matter what, my family will be waiting for me."

It has been a long journey back to this point. After missing the cut at last year's Open, for the fourth time in succession, Lowry slumped to a ranking of 92nd. 

Following the first round at Carnoustie 12 months ago, there was a pretty blunt declaration from Lowry.

"I'm not enjoying my golf at the minute, and my golf is not really enjoying me and that's the way it is, and it's hard to take," he said.

There was a recognition change was needed. Lowry split with long-time caddie Dermot Byrne in September and there has been a huge upturn in fortunes with new man on the bag Brian 'Bo' Martin, who grew up around two hours away from Portrush in Ardglass.

Victory at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January, after which an emotional Lowry spoke about a "tough couple of years on the golf course", preceded top-10s at the RBC Heritage, US PGA Championship and Canadian Open.

"With Bo I find I play golf now like there's no consequences, you know what I mean? You need to hit shots like there's no consequence," explained Lowry.

"What's the worst thing that can happen? If I swing the club here and hit the ball, no matter where it goes, what is the worst thing that can happen to you? That's kind of the mindset he brings into it. That's when I play my best. That's the way I am. I think we gel together nicely that way.

"I think as a golfer you have such a long career, well, hopefully you have such a long career, I've been [a professional for] 10 years now and it's just a rollercoaster.

"I think the reason I'm so good mentally now is I feel like I know how to take the downs."

There was no bigger down in Lowry's career than Oakmont three years ago. Now, standing a Champion Golfer after an astounding six-shot victory, there is no greater high.

That it should happen at Portrush, an Irishman winning on Irish soil, makes it only more special.

It was for so long unthinkable the tournament could be held here as the days of the Northern Ireland conflict, a period of history known as The Troubles, devastatingly split the country.

But this is a different time and there was a wonderful buzz around Portrush as home hero Rory McIlroy prepared to begin the week as one of the favourites for glory.

McIlroy, of course, did not even make the weekend and it was instead left to Lowry, from County Offaly in the Republic of Ireland, to slip under the radar and earn the acclaim of an adoring crowd.

He will, at some point after what will no doubt be a hefty celebration, go to bed with the Claret Jug, fresh in the knowledge the demons of Oakmont have been truly banished.

Shane Lowry held his nerve magnificently under pressure to claim his first major title at The Open.

The Irishman secured a hugely popular success at Royal Portrush, finishing six shots clear of Tommy Fleetwood after following up his sensational third-round 63 with a one-over 72 that was arguably even more impressive given the challenging weather conditions and the magnitude of Sunday's final 18 holes.

Lowry had begun the fourth round leading by four at 16 under, with Fleetwood his nearest challenger.

We look at how the last day unfolded.

 

1:47pm BST - The final pairing of Lowry and Fleetwood tee off in rising winds, with Rickie Fowler and JB Holmes having already gone out of bounds on the first. Lowry and Fleetwood both avoid that horrible fate, although the Irishman's tee shot is a nervous one into the rough on the left.

2pm - Having struggled badly on the opening hole, finding the bunker with his second and then coming up short with both his third and fourth shots, Lowry shows resilience to drain a six-footer for his bogey. That means his lead is only cut by one stroke, with Fleetwood having missed a presentable birdie opportunity.

2:26pm - Lowry's lead becomes four strokes once more as Fleetwood's cold start with the putter continues, the Englishman missing a short par-saver on the third. Meanwhile, Lee Westwood picks up a shot at the fifth - having earlier pitched in for birdie at the third - to trail by five.

2:39pm - The leader stretches his advantage over Fleetwood to five, birdieing the fourth after a fine approach shot. In the penultimate group, Brooks Koepka makes a spectacular eagle on the fifth. However, that comes after he had bogeyed each of the first four holes. At seven under for the tournament, he is nine behind Lowry.

2:51pm - As conditions worsen at Portrush, Fleetwood can only birdie the fifth despite leaving himself a fairly short eagle putt. Lowry matches his partner's three to reach 17 under and remain five clear.

3:22pm - Fleetwood gets up and down from a greenside bunker at the seventh to save par, but Lowry makes a tap-in birdie, his third gain in four holes. At 18 under, he leads by six and is in command of the tournament.

3:57pm - After he and Fleetwood had each bogeyed the eighth amid a burst of torrential rain, Lowry gives up another shot at the ninth to turn in a level-par 36. A fine up-and-down sees Fleetwood end the outward nine with a par and sit five off the pace, with Westwood two further back after a bogey at 11. Everyone else appears to be out of the running.

4:31pm - Lowry's wobble continues as he follows up a gutsy par save at the start of his back nine with a third bogey in four holes at 11. However, he remains five clear of Fleetwood, whose putter let him down from close range at the 10th. Westwood's race is run as he slides back into the group at seven under, eight off the pace.

4:51pm - Fleetwood reduces his deficit to four shots for the first time since the third hole, courtesy of a two-putt birdie at the par-five 12th.

5:20pm - Despite making his fifth bogey of the day at the 14th, Lowry finds himself five clear once more as Fleetwood drops two shots. After finding a bunker off the tee and heavy rough with his second, the Englishman looks to have left himself with too much to do.

5:32pm - Lowry makes a brilliant birdie at the 15th to move further clear, extending his lead to six with just three holes to play. The crowd favourite celebrates with a determined fist pump.

6:09pm - The crowd at Royal Portrush goes wild as a beaming Lowry finishes with his third par in a row to complete a round of 71 and triumph by six strokes.

There was one name on everybody's lips at the start of the week at Royal Portrush - Rory McIlroy.

Cast into a leading role he seemed eager to shun, McIlroy winning The Open Championship on home soil was the story everybody wanted to write, to read, and to talk about for generations to come.

Too bad, then, that he shot a quadruple-bogey eight on the very first hole to slide from pre-tournament favourite to a likely bet to miss the cut.

The incomplete miracle of his stunning second-round revival aside, McIlroy's race was effectively run inside 15 minutes of madness on Thursday.

It left a void at the Dunluce Links that was initially filled by compatriot Darren Clarke, the 2011 Champion Golfer of the Year getting home in even par on an opening day when he had the honour of teeing off first.

But then he too fell before the weekend, a gut-wrenching triple bogey on the last ending his fun.

At least Graeme McDowell made it to the business end of things, giving the sell-out crowd a home hope to lend their significant backing to.

It was no more than a consolation, for sure, but it was still a long way short of filling the McIlroy-shaped hole that had been left by the four-time major winner's shock exit, because McDowell was not threatening to win it.

And, worse still, after two rounds there was an American sharing the leaderboard summit as J.B. Holmes primed himself to complete the first US clean sweep of the majors since 1982.

Something had to be done to keep the Claret Jug a little closer to home. Step forward Shane Lowry, the man with whom Holmes was unwillingly sharing that lead.

A couple of rounds of 67 had the Irishman in the hunt for a maiden major. Here was Royal Portrush's new leading man. 

On Saturday, he lived up to that billing - and indeed went some way beyond it - with a round of golf that he may never surpass.

It read on the scorecard as a blemish-free 63 - impressive enough even by the raw data - but the way in which he came to sign for that number was breathtaking.

He hit 17 of the 18 greens in regulation and when the chasing pack were threatening he accelerated once more, nailing birdies at 15, 16 and 17 despite having made no gains on those holes over the first two rounds.

That run, including a mighty close call with another birdie at the last, worked the Portrush crowd into a frenzy. Where 24 hours prior there had been sympathetic applause for McIlroy's closing par, which sealed his fate, Lowry's tap-in four was met by a deafening roar.

It left him four shots clear heading into Sunday and ‘Lowry!’ chants rang out around the course, which was again packed to capacity when he returned for the final round.

Although he had let a four-stroke margin vanish in a major before, Lowry refused to wilt in abysmal conditions, just as the fans refused to let their spirits be dampened by the wind and rain that so often feel obliged to make their presence known at an Open.

After a 68-year absence from these shores, the return of golf's oldest major to Northern Ireland was never going to be a quiet affair, but Lowry made damn sure of that fact.

He gave the crowd - be they from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, or frankly anywhere on the planet - something to root for; he gave us that story to write, to read, and to talk about for generations to come.

Now there is a different name on everyone's lips at Royal Portrush – and that name is Shane Lowry.

Believe it or not NBA free agency is still happening, even if there are not any All-Star calibre players remaining on the market.

Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker and Kawhi Leonard are all spoken for. But there are still players available who can make a difference.

Let's look at some of the top role players for hire this offseason.

 

Carmelo Anthony

No one really knows what Anthony plans on doing. The 35-year-old forward only played in 10 games for the Houston Rockets in 2018-19 before stepping away after the team decided he was not a good fit. He was later traded to the Chicago Bulls and released.

Some wonder if Anthony is just washed up and should retire, but he can still have some value as a spark plug off the bench. It is just a matter of whether he is willing to accept that role.

The 10-time All-Star has a career scoring average of 24.0 points per game and averaged more than 20 points for his first 14 seasons in the league. His already questionable efficiency has dropped in recent years, but plenty of teams need firepower from their reserves.

Everybody shipped Anthony to the Los Angeles Lakers after he was released by the Bulls. But that did not pan out. Nevertheless, it is not crazy to think a team will take a chance on signing a consistent double-digit scorer for the league minimum.

Thabo Sefolosha

Sefolosha can be plugged into basically any line-up, making him one of the best catches available.

The three-and-D wing has length at 6-7 and can pester opposing teams on the ball or off it. He shot 43.6 per cent from beyond the arc with the Utah Jazz last season. However, his durability could be looked at as a major concern, as he has played more than 70 games just five times in his 13-year career.

Sefolosha consistently demonstrates his skillset and knows exactly what role he is brought in to fill, regardless of schemes.

Kenneth Faried

Whoever signs Faried will get the ultimate hustle guy.

The 6-8 big man is undersized but can bring an influx of energy to any line-up when he is on the court. Faried catches lobs, blocks shots and grabs rebounds with an intensity that is rarely matched by the opposition.

Faried did not make any noise as a reserve of the Brooklyn Nets last season, averaging 5.1 points and 3.7 rebounds. Once Brooklyn waived him, he tallied 12.9 points and 8.2 rebounds on a significantly better Rockets team.

Faried is a product of his environment and plenty of teams could benefit from his grit and relentless effort. He is called "The Manimal" for a reason.

There was little time to stop and take stock on a glorious day at Royal Portrush as The Open Championship cranked up a notch in round three.

Bright skies and low winds were the order of the day in Northern Ireland, a stark contrast to the heavy rain that is forecast to provide a huge challenge for the leaders on Sunday.

On a moving day when Shane Lowry took Portrush apart to establish a four-shot lead over Tommy Fleetwood, our Omnisport team were out and about on the ground once again.

Here, we bring you stories you may have missed from Portrush.


COVERING THE OPEN IS A GIANT TASK

An Open Championship is an absolute privilege to cover for a journalist, but it's also hard work!

The days start early, finish late and are filled with any number of tasks from writing stories, interviewing, shooting video, talking on the radio and television...

If you're struggling to feel any sympathy for the lot of the many journalists at Royal Portrush this week, the revelation that one of Omnisport's reporters found time for a spot of sightseeing will certainly not change your mind.

Early on Saturday, said reporter headed for the Giant's Causeway to take in the stunning views around this world-famous tourist attraction that sits just a few miles from the golf course.

The tens of thousands of interlocking basalt columns form a spectacle so grand and beautiful that it has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

BLACK CAPS CWC LOSS STILL RANKLES WITH FOX FAN

When roving the course, you get the opportunity to talk to people from all walks of life.

One of the Omnisport team was involved in a three-way chat with an Indian man and New Zealand woman, who were there mainly supporting Shubhankar Sharma and Ryan Fox.

The conversation briefly turned to cricket, where the Black Caps supporter was adamant the Kiwis should not have lost the World Cup, which incredibly was less than a week ago.

"Our own countryman stole it!" she said, in reference to New Zealand-born Ben Stokes dramatically and accidentally deflecting the ball for four additional runs at a crucial juncture.

Sport hurts, kids...

PORTRUSH LOCAL SHOWS THE WAY

Often after the cut at a major championship, the field is left with an odd number of players, meaning one poor soul is scheduled to tee off alone.

But usually the said player - on this occasion Paul Waring - will play with a marker, and Royal Portrush head professional Gary McNeill had that honour on Saturday.

And he enjoyed a moment to savour at the 17th hole when he drained a monster putt in front of an appreciative local crowd.

SHANE LOVES LOVE ISLAND...

One of the more popular TV shows in the United Kingdom right now is Love Island, a show where young, single males and females spend time in a villa looking for love... and it's not to everyone's taste.

But for the Open Championship leader it's the ideal way to unwind after a round on the course.

"I'd be lying if I said Love Island wasn't on [in the house]," Lowry said, to laughter among the press pack. "I do the same things as any other person [to relax], I lay back and watch on TV. "

Each to their own, Shane...

Minus two of their superstars for different reasons and with a defiant coach facing an uncertain future, it is tough to know quite what to expect from Australia in the Rugby Championship.

What is clear, however, is that the Wallabies will be pleased to have seen the back of 2018, when Michael Cheika’s side won just four of their 13 Tests.

A dismal year began with a series defeat on home soil to Ireland, included a first loss to Argentina in their own backyard since 1983 and climaxed with a 37-18 thumping at Twickenham against Eddie Jones' England.

As if results were not bad enough, off-field issues have left them without key components.

Israel Folau, one of the team’s leading names and a certainty for the Rugby World Cup, had his contract terminated by Rugby Australia following anti-homosexual posts on social media. A hearing in May found him guilty of a high-level breach of the governing body's code of conduct, just three months after he had signed a lucrative long-term deal to remain in rugby union.

"The World Cup is a big target of mine this year and I believe this Wallabies group can go a long way if we keep on improving,” Folau said at the time his contract news was made official. Now, the rugby league convert is in a dispute with his former employers for unfair dismissal.

While Folau is set for a court battle, David Pocock faces a fight of a different kind after cutting short his Super Rugby career in the hope of recovering from a calf injury in time to feature at the World Cup.

Australia’s hopes of glory in Japan looked bleak at the start of 2019; with their try-scoring full-back no longer an option and their talismanic flanker stuck on the sidelines, they must quickly regroup and work out a way to prosper in a shortened Championship campaign that begins in South Africa on Saturday.

Cheika has increased the pressure on his own shoulders by reiterating in the build-up to the game that he will walk away if they are not crowned world champions in Yokohama on November 2.

"I know most people would think that's a pipe dream but we don't,” he told the media ahead of the clash with a Springboks squad seemingly keeping their powder dry ahead of facing New Zealand in round two, judging by their team selection for the opener.

"We came second last time and if we come first next time I will have earned the right to stay on as the coach and if I don't then someone else earns the opportunity. I think that's fair."

Fair? It feels more like a giant leap of faith for a man who appears ready to jump before he is pushed. They are words of either a man who retains faith despite results, or who knows a line in the sand needs to be drawn.

Still, recent history offers hope for Australia.

They won the last shortened Championship in 2015, opening up against South Africa before securing the title by beating New Zealand at home (the same run of games they have this year, too). Nic White was the hero in the decider, contributing 10 points in the closing minutes to complete a remarkable rally from the hosts in Sydney.

Scrum-half White played in just one more Test but is back from a successful stint in England, as is also the case with James O'Connor, who last represented his country in 2013. James Slipper, meanwhile, is another familiar face to earn a recall, while Christian Lealiifano has overcome leukaemia to return to the international fold. Cheika will hope they can fill the gaps - other, less optimistic types may suggest the selections are just adding old deckchairs to the Titanic.

Slipper was the only one of the quartet who was involved in the last Rugby World Cup final, the replacement prop unable to stop the All Blacks prevailing. While their trans-Tasman rivals are expected to reach the same stage again in Japan, a repeat appears a long shot for this current version of Australia.

For Cheika, it is win or bust. After a torrid 2018, this year will either end in glory with the Webb Ellis Cup, or be the start of a huge rebuild under a new head coach.

It was time to say goodbye for half the field at Royal Portrush on Friday as the Open Championship cranked up a notch.

Many of the morning and early afternoon starters were treated to favourable scoring conditions on the Dunluce Links, which made for a fascinating leaderboard.

But many were disappointed having missed the cut in Northern Ireland - not least of all home favourite Rory McIlroy - and will have to take a watching brief for the final two rounds.

Our Omnisport writers were out and about on Friday, bringing you some of the highlights you may have missed.


ASK A SILLY QUESTION...

Brooks Koepka was speaking to the media about perceived putting woes after his second round.

The four-time major winner spoke of his belief that he would be higher up the leaderboard had he got his flatstick going, which led to this amusing exchange.

"Did you expect to be leading?" "I wanted to, but it's hard to when you don't make any putts." "So you'd rather lead? Some people like to sneak under the radar." "No, I'd rather be in last place..."

Never change, Brooks.


HOLMES HAS AN ACE UP HIS SLEEVES

J.B. Holmes kept himself firmly in contention for a maiden major title yet spent the majority of his media conference fielding questions about his dog.

Fellow dog-lover Tommy Fleetwood had already spoken of his envy over Holmes' ability to take his pooch to many PGA Tour events, although the American doesn't have him in Northern Ireland.

Holmes' four-legged friend is called Ace and he's a miniature Goldendoodle who cost $5,000 at a charity auction and is much loved by the entire Holmes family.

The question the 37-year-old had to think hardest about was whether he preferred his dog or his caddie.

"Oh, that's tough," he said while pondering his reply. "They're both my best friend."

 

CONFLICTING LEVELS OF OPTIMISM FOR RORY

McIlroy had a day to forget on Thursday. In fact he had a day the packed-out course at Royal Portrush wanted to forget.

But his opening-day woes and the drizzly rain did little to dampen the spirits of a partisan crowd when McIlroy played the first hole of his second round, as people jostled for position to catch a glimpse of their hero.

One spectator standing next to a member of the Omnisport team yelled that "61 will do it Rory!" in a true show of encouragement.

Another fan whispered rather more sheepishly: "He needs nothing short of a miracle..."

In fairness, we all know who was realistically speaking the truth...

It was a close-run thing as McIlroy added a sparkling 65 to his opening 79, but there was to be no miracle of Portrush for the Northern Irishman.

O'DRISCOLL TALKS TACKLING PORTRUSH

Two of Omnisport's crew took a trip over to the spectators' village at Royal Portrush to chat with HSBC ambassadors Tim Henman and Brian O'Driscoll.

The competitive nature of both men clearly still burns strong as a spot of crazy golf was in order before it was interview time.

Ireland rugby union great O'Driscoll spoke about playing Portrush a few weeks ago. So, what score did you shoot Brian?

"I actually played well. I had a 74, which is one of my career low scores," he said. "I started a bit ropey with bogey-double, then I went one under from there so it was definitely one to remember."

Some people are just good at everything...

The Rugby Championship begins this weekend, with the four nations keen to find form ahead of the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan.

New Zealand have won the tournament in each of the past three years and the All Blacks are favourites to once again finish above Australia, Argentina and South Africa.

We run the rule over the quartet ahead of the start of the Rugby Championship, where teams will only face each other once in a World Cup year.

NEW ZEALAND

The All Blacks are chasing more than just a fourth successive title and third consecutive World Cup in the coming months, with a slice of history also on the line. No team has ever won the Rugby Championship - or the Tri-Nations, as it was previously known - and also lifted that year's World Cup.

New Zealand were beaten by South Africa in Wellington during last year's Rugby Championship - the first time in nine years the Springboks had won an away game against the All Blacks - while a 16-9 defeat to Ireland in November will have given the rest of the rugby world further encouragement.

Sonny Bill Williams, who will not feature against Argentina on Saturday, has had an injury-hit Super Rugby season and Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock will be rested for the Pumas clash. However, this is a star-studded team regardless - one that contains 2016 and 2017 World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett - and they remain the gold standard.

SOUTH AFRICA

The Springboks were runners-up last year and might have finished top of the pile had they not thrown away a 30-13 lead against New Zealand in Pretoria after beating them in their own backyard. They ended the year with seven wins from 14 games so consistency will be the key.

A home Test series success over England was a sign South Africa could be a team to fear under Rassie Erasmus, whose decision to relax the rules on selecting European-based players has paid dividends.

Fly-half Handre Pollard was brilliant during the Super Rugby season, finishing as the league's leading point scorer, though he will be rested against the Wallabies in the opener and Aphiwe Dyantyi is sidelined by a hamstring problem.

AUSTRALIA

The Wallabies endured a horrendous 2018, losing nine of their 13 Tests. They suffered three heavy defeats to the All Blacks and were beaten by both Argentina and South Africa.

Australia slipped to their lowest-ever ranking of seventh following their first loss to the Pumas on home soil since 1983 and then lost two of their three November internationals, against Wales and England. They have not played a game in 2019 but former star full-back Israel Folau has already been making headlines, having been sacked by Rugby Australia following a controversial social-media post in which he wrote "hell awaits…drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters".

Coach Michael Cheika, who has left Quade Cooper out of his squad, made clear he will walk away if Australia do not lift the World Cup in Japan, so this competition should give an indication to his long-term future. Cancer survivor Christian Lealiifano could make his first appearance in three years at this tournament, though he will miss the South Africa clash with a shoulder problem.

ARGENTINA

The Pumas' 2018 did not start well - two home defeats to Wales preceding a 44-15 thrashing at the hands of Scotland in Resistencia - and coach Daniel Hourcade vacated his post, replaced by Mario Ledesma.

Having never won more than once in a single Rugby Championship campaign before, Argentina claimed two victories in 2018 by overcoming South Africa 32-19 in Mendoza and then beating the Wallabies on Australian soil, but they were winless in November Tests against Ireland, France and Scotland.

The Jaguares, who provide the bulk of this Argentina squad, reached their first ever Super Rugby final this year, only to be beaten by the Crusaders, but translating that club success on the international stage is an altogether different challenge.

Chris Paul did not get what he wanted, but he is apparently not too mad about it.

In the meantime in MLB, batters really need to start watching their heads.

And in the NHL a ton is happening, and yet, nothing actually is.

 

1. Paul staying with Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder had hoped to move Paul quickly after acquiring him in a package for Russell Westbrook last week, but that is apparently not going to happen.

Paul is likely to start the season in Oklahoma City, according to ESPN, and could play out a good portion of the campaign, or even longer, there.

Oklahoma City reportedly tried to move Paul to the Heat, but their proposals were not to the liking of Miami, so Paul, and his three years and more than $100million left on his contract, will stay with the Thunder.

Fortunately, both Paul and the Thunder reportedly see value in him sticking around, so it is not a total loss for either party.

2. Plunk wars

It is that time of year. Baseball players are throwing at each other again and two pitchers were suspended for their actions on Wednesday after throwing at the heads of opponents a day earlier.

Philadelphia Phillies reliever Hector Neris was mad at himself so he threw at David Freese.

Then, Los Angeles Angels reliever Noe Ramirez threw at Jake Marisnick for breaking his catcher's nose and giving him a concussion.

Both players were suspended for three games. Both men will appeal.

 

3. NHL has oddly eventful week

For some reason there was a lot going on in the NHL this week. There were several signings and a somewhat notable trade.

- The Chicago Blackhawks traded Artem Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators for Zack Smith.
- Minnesota Wild re-signed Ryan Donato to a two-year deal after he excelled following his trade there for Charlie Coyle at the deadline.
- The Washington Capitals re-signed Jakub Vrana to a two-year deal.
- Colorado Avalanche signed J.T. Compher to a four-year deal but still have not given Mikko Rantanen an offer.

Rantanen remains unsigned as do other restricted free agent stars such as Patrick Laine (Winnipeg Jets), Matthew Tkachuk (Calgary Flames), Brayden Point (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Mitch Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs).

All of these men face holdouts if they do not get the deals they want, but with all of the contracts already handed out teams simply might not have enough money to give especially with a lower salary cap than many anticipated. There could be a lot of disappointed young players this offseason.

 

4. Falcons, Deion Jones agree to four-year, $57m deal

This is how much Deion Jones means to the Atlanta Falcons defense.

After going down early in the season to injury, Jones was still given a four-year, $57m deal on Wednesday. Jones played in just six games in 2018, but Atlanta clearly have no concern about his long-term health and locked him up accordingly.

The Falcons are due for a bounce-back season if they are healthy and Jones will be a big part of it.

It was an eventful start to proceedings at the 148th Open Championship, with some of the biggest names in the sport enduring a day of toil.

Royal Portrush was a hot ticket as the world's best golfers began their quest for the coveted Claret Jug.

There was sunshine, rain, wind and all sorts of drama out on the course.

As ever, Omnisport's reporters had their eyes peeled for some of things you may have missed, collecting the highlights into this bite-sized diary.

THINGS QUICKLY GO AWRY FOR RORY

It was quite an experience standing on the first hole when Rory McIlroy's name was announced to an expectant crowd, with the fans giving a typically deafening roar.

Sadly for McIlroy, who shot 61 at Portrush in 2005, things quickly went wrong. His opening tee shot veered out of bounds and smashed a fan's phone in the process.

A quadruple-bogey eight followed and it was a subdued crowd who witnessed their homegrown star trundle to the second tee, with the applause turning to little more than a polite smattering.

 

WONDER IF HE FOUND HIMSELF IN THE WOOF?

Plenty of players are jostling for the lead at The Open, but one good boy perhaps should have been kept more tightly on his...

A happy dog found his way on to a tee box and managed to escape the attentions of fans and officials trying to usher him back under the spectator ropes.

ARE YOU TAKING THE MIC? - DUVAL NOT IMPRESSED

Poor David Duval endured quite the day, kicking it off with back-to-back birdies before a quadruple bogey on the fifth and an eye-watering 14 on the seventh.

He played two provisional shots off the tee and then ended up continuing with the wrong ball, incurring a hefty penalty.

To his credit, the 2001 champion turned up for his mixed zone duties after his round of 91, but he was not keen to speak into the podium microphone.

First, he side-stepped the device altogether, but when it was thrust towards his face, the American swatted it away again.

In sport the greatest of dreams can instantly become the stuff of nightmares.

For Rory McIlroy, Thursday's Royal Portrush homecoming for the first round of The Open must have felt like that fabled dream where you're stood naked in front of a room of your peers, as his worst fears were laid bare in front of the world in a torrid round on the Dunluce links.

It simply wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't the narrative so many had expected or hoped for, even.

Addressing the media this week, McIlroy discussed how he did not feel like the centre of attention.

It was an admirable attempt at staying low key, but there was never any chance the focus of everyone's attentions at Portrush would not be on the four-time major winner.

Ever since he made a mockery of Portrush's reputation as one of the game's toughest links course as a 16-year-old with a startling course-record 61, McIlroy has been the man in these parts of the world.

But boy did Portrush have its revenge on Thursday and in the cruellest of fashions.

An almighty roar welcomed McIlroy onto the first tee as an expectant home crowd waited with bated breath to see what one of Northern Ireland's greatest sons would produce.

A spectator's broken phone as a result of McIlroy's opening wayward tee shot was a fitting metaphor for a round that fell to pieces from the off.

By the time he trudged off the opening green, having made an ugly quadruple eight, the smattering of almost apologetic applause told its own story. 

It was tough viewing as McIlroy scratched his way through the early holes. There was hope a recovery was on the way with birdies at the seventh and the ninth, and he went 12 holes without a bogey.

Yet, just like the showers that arrived at intermittent intervals, that hope proved brief as McIlroy three-putted inside five feet at the 16th – aptly named 'Calamity Corner' – before triple bogeying the last.

A clearly disappointed McIlroy put on a brave face and struck a determined tone, even allowing himself a little joke when asked if there was a way back to the cut mark from 79.

"Definitely a way back to Florida," he quipped. "I definitely think if I can put the ball in the fairway tomorrow I can shoot a good enough score to be around for the weekend. 

"Obviously I'm pretty sure anyone starting with a 79 in this golf tournament doesn't think about winning at this point. But I think I can go out there and shoot something in the mid-60s, be around for the weekend, and then try to play good from there."

Suggestions nerves due to the weight of expectation on his shoulders were a factor were quickly quashed by McIlroy.

"I don't think so. I was nervous on the first tee. But not nervous because of that. Nervous because it's an Open Championship," he added. 

"I usually get nervous on the first tee anyway, regardless of where it is. So maybe a little more so today than other places. But I don't think it was that. It was a bit of a tentative golf swing with a hard wind off to the right and the ball just got going left on me."

There is a sadly familiar pattern in golf's four biggest majors with McIlroy. He has 10 top-10 finishes since he won the last of his four majors at the 2014 US PGA Championship.

But there have not been many times he was genuinely in contention and this week – one of the most important McIlroy has had in his career – is surely now another lost cause.

Juventus have won the race for Matthijs de Ligt and handed Maurizio Sarri an €85.5million asset set to immediately challenge for a starting spot.

The Netherlands international commanded the attention of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and more before agreeing a five-year contract in Turin.

De Ligt, 19, captained Ajax with distinction in Europe and the Eredivisie last term and compiled a set of statistics consistent with a player who could change the look of Serie A's strongest defence. 

Our dive into the Opta data illustrates why one half of Juve's established centre-back pairing might be looking over his shoulder.

Bonucci battle brewing

De Ligt has walked through the doors at Allianz Stadium in rather more triumphant fashion than Leonardo Bonucci did almost 12 months ago.

The Italy international returned from an ill-fated stint at AC Milan and resumed his partnership with Giorgio Chiellini at the heart of the four-man defence regularly employed by Massimiliano Allegri.

The results were not as intended.

Juve conceded more goals – 30 – in Serie A than in any of their previous seven title-winning campaigns, and were breached twice in the Champions League on four separate occasions.

De Ligt could apply serious pressure to the 32-year-old's position.

New boss Sarri favours a 4-3-3 system and his shiny new acquisition outperformed fellow right-footer Bonucci in most key defensive measures last term.

Across all competitions, De Ligt won more duels (5.48), aerial contests (3.77) and tackles (0.61) per 90 minutes, while also completing a greater average number of clearances (3.95) and recoveries (6.53).

Dwarfed in each category by the Dutchman, Bonucci ranked last behind Chiellini, Daniele Rugani and the now-retired Andrea Barzagli for duels (3.02), aerial contests (1.75) and clearances (2.86).

 

Aerial prowess an alternative weapon

Sarri's Chelsea were accused of being a one-dimensional team that sought only to break opposition sides down through often tedious passing sequences.

Alvaro Morata and Gonzalo Higuain floundered in their attempts to spearhead the front three and the Blues scored the fewest goals of all top-six sides in the Premier League.

Tormenting defences domestically should be no trouble for Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, Moise Kean and Juve's high-class attacking cohort, but Sarri would be wise to seek out a variety of scoring sources for an assault on multiple fronts.

In De Ligt, he has an aerial ace capable of climbing above any pack.

The 19-year-old conjured seven goals for Ajax last season: three in the Eredivisie, one against rivals Feyenoord in the KNVB Beker, and a further three in the Champions League.

Six of those were headed, including the towering effort which knocked Juve out of Europe while he also nodded an equaliser for Netherlands in their Nations League victory over England.

Bonucci, scorer of three goals, was the only Bianconeri defender to manage more than two.

Crucial interventions in big matches could tip the selection scale in De Ligt's favour.

 

Durability threatens established order

In the wake of Barzagli's retirement and the end of Martin Caceres' short-term loan, Juve reinforced their defensive stocks by signing Turkey international Merih Demiral from Sassuolo.

The 21-year-old will almost certainly find his place in the pecking order behind Rugani, a favourite of Sarri's since their time together at Empoli.

Bringing in a fifth centre-back to compete for one of two positions could lead the Italian champions to consider replenishing a diminished bank balance.

Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City have reportedly shown interested in Bonucci, whose future is at least less certain than that of captain Chiellini.

What is in no doubt is De Ligt's readiness to carry the load required of a regular starter.

Throughout a demanding 2018-19 season, the reigning Golden Boy award winner turned out more times (55) than Chiellini and Rugani combined. Bonucci, Juve's top appearance-maker, started 14 fewer games.

Sarri demonstrated appreciation for a high degree of availability as he consistently paired David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger together at Stamford Bridge until a knee injury removed the latter from calculations.

Now, armed with hard evidence of De Ligt's excellence, the Bianconeri boss might forge a fresh partnership in Turin to herald the beginning of a new era.

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