Shane Lowry away from home — and in the Safeway Open

© Joe Rondone / The Commercial Appeal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — The U.S. Open is next week at Winged Foot just outside New York City. Which is the reason Shane Lowry this week is at the Safeway Open in Napa.

It’s a long story, but not as long as the separation of Lowry from his family in Ireland.

It shouldn’t be like this, but there’s this COVID-19 thing and it doesn’t matter if you won the world’s oldest tournament the last time it was held — and in your home country, no less. There’s no escaping a two-week quarantine imposed on international travelers.

So when Lowry arrived in the States in mid-June for the game that’s his business, it was not without distress. Or understanding of his fortune, good and bad.

“It was difficult saying goodbye to your wife and 3-year-old for 10 weeks,” he said, “but it’s not like I’m going off to war. Like, I’m going to play golf.”

Play it where he’s never played it before, in the wine country in what is the PGA Tour’s opening event of the slightly crazy wrap-around schedule.

Yes, on Sunday, Dustin Johnson won the year-ending Tour Championship and $15 million. Yes, on Thursday, Lowry, Sergio Garcia, Jordan Spieth and numerous others will try to win the year-starting Safeway, first prize $1.18 million. What is that, three days without an official round?

If you hold it, they will come. The golfers, not the fans, unfortunately. What arguably is the best field in the history of the Safeway (or the names it once was called) is off-limits for spectators, as is almost every sporting event.

No fans at baseball. No fans at NHL playoffs. No fans at NBA playoffs. No fans at the Kentucky Derby. No fans, no cheers, no roars.

Other than the shouts of a few caddies or officials, deafening silence. Such a contrast to Royal Portrush, where Lowry all but floated along the 18th fairway toward the Open victory while seemingly half a nation chanted “Ole, ole, ole.”

An Irishman winning in Ireland. Ole.

There was no Open this year. It was cancelled because of the coronavirus.

Lowry keeps the trophy, the historic claret jug, at least until July 2021.

“It’s nice,” he said unenthusiastically, “but obviously it’s very strange times. I have the jug at home, and it will be nice to have it on the Christmas dinner table again.

“I look forward to going back to St. George’s (Sandwich, England) next year, but obviously we’ve got a lot of big tournaments between now and then.”

If the Safeway isn’t particularly big, it is at least notable. Silverado, originally designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and then modified by Johnny Miller, has had great winners including Miller and Jack Nicklaus.

“Got here on Sunday,” said Lowry, who after not qualifying for the FedEx Cup went to Florida. “Quite a nice place, and I’m looking forward to the week.”

The Safeway got lucky you might say.

“It’s strange,” said Lowry, “because I’ve never played the fall like a new season and played the fall over here. I’ve always been back in Europe this time of year. It would be nice to get a few FedEx points and hit the ground running.”

Figuratively, that is. Nobody’s going to do much running with the heat and smoke that has been Northern California’s weather of late.

“The temperatures here,” said Lowry. Yes, it was hot, but not like Florida. “Humid and horrible there.”

Lowry was asked whether golf, really the Tour, can hold a meaningful fall schedule, forgetting this year because of the virus.

“God, I don’t know,” he said. “Years ago, people used to have a proper off-season, where golfers would take a couple of months off. But look at it now. Golfers want to play. I think the fall schedule is good. I’m playing it now and hopefully getting my season kick-started.”

Then finally going home to his family.