Shane Lowry soaks in the attention as he begins Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship title defence

Irishman comfortable in the spotlight upon his returns to the National course where his rise began last year

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 19:  Shane Lowry of Ireland celebrates with the winner's trophy after Day Four of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club on January 19, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

You can’t move too far this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, presented by EGA, without bumping into Shane Lowry.

His image is everywhere. He is on one of the huge posters that lines Sheikh Zayed Road, just as you enter the golf club. He’s on the back of the giant grandstand that guards the first hole. Even in the clubhouse, there he is, on pictures and portraits.

It is understandable, though. Lowry is the tournament’s defending champion, having emerged last year from a Sunday thriller to secure his first victory in more than three years. Six months later, he was Open champion, too.

Even still, for the typically understated Irishman, the new profile takes some getting used to.

“It’s pretty cool, I suppose,” Lowry said on Wednesday, the day before his title defence begins. “I don't really stand to admire too much. I walk past it; it is what it is.

“Obviously I didn't request that my mug be put everywhere around the course, just to let you know that.”

In the 12 months since that win, Lowry’s become recognisable to a much wider audience. Abu Dhabi kick-started his recent rise, a seesaw victory in which he began Sunday with a three-shot lead before falling four back with seven holes to play.

But he displayed considerable grit to storm back, birding the last to triumph by a single shot from Richard Sterne. It was Lowry’s first success in 1,258 days.

No wonder, then, that his return to the National course has been giving good vibes.

“I haven't defended a tournament for quite a while, so it's nice to come back to somewhere you've done well,” Lowry said. “It is nice to be getting the special treatment coming back as defending champion, as well.

“It makes it a little bit more special. Look, I'm obviously hopeful that I'm going to have a decent week here this week and give myself a chance again.

“When you win tournaments, it is very important to go back and defend them and be here and really soak that in, because who knows when you're going to win again in your career.”

No matter what transpires this week, and in future, Lowry’s career can be defined by his Open win last July, close enough to home, at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. It was his first major title, where he coped with a healthy overnight lead to eventually win by six.

Handling the increased attention since hasn’t been too difficult. On Sunday, Lowry teed off the season with a second place in Hong Kong. The newfound status seems to sit well.

“As regards winning here and winning the Open last year, I dealt quite well with it,” said Lowry, out early on Thursday with world No 1 Brooks Koepka and two-time Abu Dhabi champion Tommy Fleetwood.

“Obviously there's a little bit more attention on you, but I look at last week: last week was probably the first week where I've gone as one of the star attractions and I felt I coped with it very well.

“I'm here this week as defending champion and I've got great group tomorrow – Tommy and Brooks. It's exciting to be in those pairings. It's nice to be playing with the top players in the world. It's where I can see I'm at at the minute with my game.”

Patently, that's the goal this week. Looking more broadly at 2020, debuts at the Ryder Cup – compatriot and close friend Padraig Harrington is Europe's captain – and the Olympics feature strongly.

“I might be silly… I've set little goals," Lowry said. "Obviously I have goals in my head. I don't write them down. I don't do any of that. So I have it in my head what I want to achieve this year, and like the main thing for me is make that Ryder Cup team. I've kind of set my schedule out, I've set everything out to do that.

"But I need to just bring it back to basics and back to what I do best, and that's just being the best version of myself every day, and that's all I can do. I go out tomorrow, might be 72, might be 62, but I know it's the best I can do and I've prepared as well as I can. If I do that for the whole season, I'll get to where I want to be.”

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