The Road to Hoylake – Tales of Open Qualifying

Standing alone on a practice putting green, eyeing a six-inch drop, whispering the words: “This for The Open.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visualised that moment.

Then follow the immortal words “and the Champion Golfer of the year.” I can see it, hear it, right down to the hoisting of the beautiful sterling silver jug and the rapid-fire click of a wall of cameras.

Every July, scenes from The Open trigger the same feelings I had as a boy on the practice putting green.

Never too late

Three decades on, the closest I’ve come to living that dream are the three Club Championships I’ve won at Ramside Hall where the trophy is an unapologetically gaudy replica of the Claret Jug.

I believe The Open is the greatest championship in golf, bar none. I’ve attended many, as an awestruck spectator, volunteer marshall, journalist and golf industry insider.

Something changed in 2014 and I decided to stop dreaming and start living. Some cursory research and a signed cheque for £140 later, I entered qualifying for The 143rd Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club or ‘Hoylake’ as it’s affectionately called.

HOYLAKE, WIRRAL – credit England’s Golf Coast (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

The Open entry form is more exacting than a tax return, but after identifying my clubs, ball, footwear, groove specifications and the year of manufacture for everything apart from my trolley, 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. I’d always wanted to play it and it’s less than an hour’s drive from my home.

Months later, preparations hadn’t gone to plan.

HOYLAKE, WIRRAL – credit England’s Golf Coast  (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)


The worst preparation 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 removal companies. I’d stuffed almost every possession I own into a brown box – bar my carefully packed golf clubs.

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 our new back garden but I was lining up spirit levels and tape measures instead of practice putts.

A total lack of preparation can have a liberating effect on your anxious ‘inner golfer’ and give you a reason to see golf for what it is, a game, a hit in the fresh air and something to be enjoyed.

June 23rd came quickly and with it my chance to tee it 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 RAF or British Army.

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

My next meeting was with a sharp-suited young woman with an earpiece and I was directed to registration where I was briefed on local rules – especially encounters with the adjoining Newcastle racecourse.

After declaring my golf ball and accepting my card, I found my friend and caddie Paul Atkinson by the putting green.

Paul loves golf. Possibly even more than I do and he was ready. He’d arrived early, scouted out the range and chatted to other competitors who’d played a practice round.

Going in Blind

I’d never seen the course before and Paul had played it a few times, but never set up for Open Qualifying.

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 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 rocket a 54 degree wedge – and nearly take out the range attendant.

I recover and get back towards finding the grooved part of the clubface. After a few confidence builders, 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 at 14 on the stimp.

‘This is Open Qualifying I say to myself, what do you expect.’ I’m drawn with two pros, Antonio Rodriguez from Spain and Richard Robson-Crosby, from local club Ponteland.

Antonio reminds me of many Spanish golf pros, small, diminutive, closely groomed and dashing in Lacoste t-shirt and drainpipe chinos. Strangely, his caddie Kevin is a portly Glaswegian dressed head to toe in Dunlop clothing.

The first is a drivable par-four and I play conservative hitting a four iron up the left of the fairway. I’m thrilled to make solid contact.

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’m through the back. Hutch was right – no landing on the greens.

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 – kind 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 starts to call me Seve, as I miss green after green, and still 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, silently, as I survey a seemingly impossible challenge.

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 qualifying but it feels like an Open moment. A universally insignificant but genuinely personal 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. Paul is upbeat. He pats me on the back.

Next, I sit down and mark the cards in the scorer’s tent. There’s no interview with Hazel Irvine or Dan Walker, no consolatory musing from Alliss or Hay on what could have been.

After a cold and well earned beer, I stop by the leaderboard to see how the field has fared and where I placed.

I scan down the names – big reputations – professional and amateur, Walker Cup players and future PGA Tour stars. The field is 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 finish 23rd.

The top seven qualified, from Matthew Webb at six-under to a cluster on one-under. Their dreams lived on and they moved to Final Qualifying.

Open Qualifying Northumberland
Open Qualifying – The Northumberland Golf Club 2014 – The ‘Road to Hoylake’ ended here

Falling four short of the qualifying mark at my first attempt, I learned I could compete at Open Qualifying, in a high-class field and I lived part of a highly personal dream that will never, ever, die.

*This article was first published in 2014

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