The Road to Hoylake – Tales of Open Qualifying

Global Golfer writer Matthew Moore fulfilled a lifelong dream in 2014 by entering qualifying for the 143rd Open Championship, but was it Hoylake heartbreak or hello Royal Liverpool?

Every boy golfer has gone through the ritual at some point.

Standing alone on a practice putting green, eyeing a six-inch drop, whispering the words in the four inches between your ears – “This for The Open.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentally won The Open. Then, in my mind’s eye, I hoist the Claret Jug into the air in front of a cheering crowd.

Every July, the sight of brown and baked links fairways, cavernous pot bunkers and ‘Quiet Please’ signs fills me with the same excitement I felt as a boy on the putting green.

Lifting the Claret Jug

Now, a mid-30’s desk driving father hanging onto a scratch handicap, the closest I get to winning The Open is when I’ve won the Club Championship at Ramside Golf Club, County Durham – where the trophy happens to be a flattering impersonation of the Claret Jug.

Matthew Moore golf

Without fail, the third week in July involves a committed routine of camping out on the couch from Thursday to Sunday, listening to the wistful ramblings of Peter Aliss, the “Voice of Golf,” and secretly wishing I could taste the tang of sea salt, the wafting aroma of burgers and hear the roars as I strolled inside the ropes on route to a 67 in the first round.

Aliss at The Open

Then I wake up and realise I’ve missed Peter describing the centenary celebrations at Chuffingham Heath Golf Club, Sevenoaks and thanking Major Farqhuarson and his lads from REME Squadron 894 for raking the bunkers and building an improvised  winch/ stena-lift for Aliss to make it to the Bollinger Tent.

I’ve always settled for my lot as a writer and journalist and have been fortunate enough to pen features about the most romantic tournament in golf. I’ve also attended my fair share of championships, as spectator and reporter.

Something changed for me in 2014 and I decided to stop dreaming and start living. A little internet research and a signed cheque for £140 later my application form to enter The 143rd Open Championship qualifying competition was winging its way to the championship office at The R&A in St Andrews.

Open Golf entry form

The golf entry form that takes longer than a tax return – Open Golf 2014

When I told my wife, she winced, imagining the lightshades and blinds those pounds and pennies might have bought. My father blinked, semi-admiringly and joked “that’s an expensive day’s golf,” my regular Saturday fourball partner Paul insisted on being bagman.

It took me longer to fill out The Open entry form than it does to file the annual tax return and after identifying all of my clubs, ball, footwear, grooves specifications and the year of manufacture for everything apart from my Powakaddy, all that was left was to wait.

I chose regional qualifying at The Northumberland Club, Gosforth – which ironically is in Newcastle Upon Tyne not Northumberland – because I have always wanted to play it and secondly it’s virtually on my doorstep.

Months later, preparations hadn’t gone to plan for my attempt to make it to Royal Liverpool (Hoylake).

How not to prepare for Open Qualifying

Instead of hours on the chipping and putting greens, I’d sat holding on the phone to mortgage brokers, solicitors, estate agents and removals companies. I’d stuffed almost every possession I own into a brown box – bar my carefully packed golf clubs – and parcel taped it to the point of no escape.

Three days before Open Qualifying we moved house, with a toddler, packing a life into 60 or so cardboard boxes. Sure, I fitted in a few swings in the new back garden but I was lining up more spirit levels and tape measures than putts.

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A total lack of preparation can have a liberating effect on your uptight ‘inner golfer’ and give you a reason to see golf for what it is, a game, and something we do for enjoyment.

With this in mind, the day came, June 23rd – and with it a chance to take a step closer to a lifelong dream of teeing up in The Open.

Arriving at The Northumberland Club, I was greeted by a smiling gentleman in a double breasted navy blue blazer and a haircut straight from the Officer’s Mess at the Royal Air Force. Quite the car parking attendant I mused to myself, perhaps the North East chapter of the R&A were here in force.

Northumberland Golf Club

The Northumberland Golf Club – often called “The Park” – Open Qualifying venue

My next meeting was with a sharp suited young woman with an ear piece and I was directed to registration where another blazer greeted me and began the briefing on local rules – especially encounters with the adjoining Newcastle racecourse.

After I’d declared my chosen golf ball and accepted my card I found my caddie Paul Atkinson by the putting green.

Paul loves golf as much, possibly more than I do, and he was beaming – brimful of excitement – and ready to go. He’d arrived early, scouted out the range and chatted to some competitors who’d managed a practice round.

Playing it Blind

We were going in blind. I’d never seen the course before and Paul had played it a few times, but never when it was set up like an Open venue.

A chance encounter with Hutch, the long-time caddie of a good friend of mine, turned out to be the best strokesaver I could wish for. You can’t pitch anything on the green he said, “they are so firm and fast you have to drop it short,” surely not I thought. This is a heathland course not a links.

With 30 minutes to go until tee-off I was sweating and nervous. Warming up on the range alongside a field of pros and amateurs off scratch or less is not the place to throw in a shank – but half a basket in and I hosel rocketed a 54 degree wedge and nearly took out the range attendant.

That’s what the R&A get for charging competitors £3 for 25 rubbery yellow Srixon’s. I recover and get into a rhythm with the help of Voltarol and Golf Pain Away, my two favoured back masseurs.

After a few well hit rubbers I move to the chipping green and then hit a few putts. The ball is rolling like a marble on glass and I hear mutters that the greens are running 14 on the stimp.

This is Open Qualifying I say to myself, what did I expect? I’m drawn with two pros, Antonio Rodriguez from Spain and Richard Robson-Crosby, from nearby Ponteland Golf Club.

Antonio reminds me of many Spanish golf pros, small, diminutive, closely groomed and dashing in La Coste t-shirt and drainpipe chinos. Strangely, his caddie Kevin is a ginger haired Glaswegian dripping in Dunlop golf clothing.

The first is a driveable par-four and I play conservative hitting a four iron up the left of the fairway. Heart pounding, I’m thrilled to have found the sweet spot.

Teeing off in Open Qualifying

Teeing off in Open Qualifying – my caddie didn’t tell me my shirt was hanging out #epicfail

I arrow a pitching wedge straight at the flag for my second and expect applause from the 35 or so members sat up on the hill by the green – nothing – not a ripple. When I reach the green I see I’ve bounced on it and gone straight over the back. Hutch was right – no landing on the green.

I chip short and hole from ten feet – par. Four more and I’m wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m playing in The Open – sort of – and I’m level par.

Level par in The Open

I cut my tee-shot slightly at the sixth and have to chip sideways from behind a stand of trees. The rigs and furrows of the Northumberland Golf Club started to exercise an influence on play and with lightning fast greens it’s difficult to be aggressive.

A bogey is followed by another par and then quickly two more dropped shots as my approaches find thick collars of lush rough just feet from the putting green.

I fail to get the shots back at the reachable par five 9th after a long straight drive but get up and down from a tight spot for par to stay three over.

I know I probably need to finish under par and start pushing for birdies. I skip over two more greens and play brilliant recovery shots to par them. I smother a 3-iron at the long 13th and fail to save from sand – four over.

I attack again and miss left at the short 14th, but play a sublime bunker shot to tap-in distance. I hole another par saver at the 15th after driving into a fairway bunker. Antonio has started to call me Seve as I miss green after green and save pars.

When I land in the rear of the greenside bunker at 16, I find the ball on a downslope with the pin cut around eight feet onto the sloping green.

What would Seve have done

I wonder what would Seve have done.

I rehearse the shot for what seems like forever and zip the right hand through hard into the sand. The ball zips out and grabs the green on landing, bounces, rolls and checks around two feet from the hole.

The small gallery, which includes my father, a member from my golf club, a self-styled golf trolley inventor and a few Northumberland club blazers, gasped in astonishment.

I tap in. At plus four with two to go, I know qualification is unlikely but I’m loving the experience. The course is fiendishly hard and the atmosphere is that of a high class professional tournament.

I narrowly miss for birdie at 17 and I take to the 18th tee hoping for a strong finish. There is a large gallery basking in the sunshine on the clubhouse veranda watching the players hit up to the elevated green. Another good drive and I play to feed my wedge in from the left hand side down towards the pin. Mild applause tells me it’s not far away.

Up on the green I’m facing a 12-foot left to right downhill putt that could easily run away from me. I take my time and persuade myself this will be my last shot of the day. The putt is on its way and begins to shudder off the slope towards the left edge. It topples in and I hear clapping and voices saying “well done,” “good putt.”

Final hole heroics at The Open

I know I’ve missed out on qualifying but it feels like an Open moment. I think back to all the times I’ve stood and watched final hole heroics at The Open – like Justin Rose’s holed wedge as a 17-year-old amateur at Birkdale in 1998, Paul Lawrie’s 4 iron into the 18th green at Carnoustie a year later, and most unusually; the exotic dancer streaking onto the 18th at The Old Course St Andrews during Tiger’s victory walk in 2000.

When I shake hands with Antonio and Richard I realise I’ve beaten my professional playing partners and acquitted myself well. Paul is upbeat and excited. He pats me on the back.

Next we’re escorted to the scorer’s tent where we sit down and mark our cards in front of two more blazers. There’s no interview with Hazel Irvine or Dan Walker for me but I’m happy and ready to treat my caddie and father to a cold beer and a burger – which was rather generously subsidised by The Northumberland Golf Club – and cost a mere £4.

I chuckle because I know the paying patrons will be shelling out far more than £4 for a pint of beer in the tented village at Hoylake this week.

For what they pay for Fish and Chips and a pint in Open week your R&A member will enjoy Filet Steak, a bottle of red and a cheeseboard followed by a large dram in the grand old clubhouse in St Andrews.

When we finish our drinks and ready to leave, I stop by the leaderboard to see how the field has fared and where I might be placed. I scan down the names – big reputations – professional and amateur, and see a field struggling with the speed and firmness of the greens.

With no preparation, the stress of moving house and no idea where I was going, I eventually finished 23rd. The top seven qualified, from Matthew Webb at six-under to a cluster on one-under, their dreams lived on and they headed to Final Qualifying.

Open Qualifying Northumberland

Open Qualifying – The Northumberland Golf Club 2014 – Happy but the Road to Hoylake ended here

With only four shots to find by next June, I know I can compete at Open Qualifying and I have fulfilled a dream to enter The Open.

Until then, I’ll happily to take my seat on the couch and enjoy Peter Aliss’ witticisms about the young scamp with the ice cream and the fly-by from the Red Arrows, while watching Tiger, Rory and co duel it out on the sun baked links of Royal Liverpool.

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Global Golfer is a magazine for anyone who simply has to tee it up on their travels - from a sheep-shorn 9 holer on a Scottish island to luxury resorts in the Caribbean - we take you inside the ropes of the world's golf courses, resorts and bucket-list buddy trips.

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