Crowds flocked to West Lancashire on Merseyside to see one man, but a number of stories and heart-warming tales emerged from an exciting, sun-kissed day of Final Open Qualifying
Whenever West Lancashire is awarded the honour of hosting Final Open Qualifying, it brings a smile to my face.
I was a member at this golf course, which Matt Wallace sang the praises of after the 36-hole event on Tuesday, during my first year of university.
Wallace had used the knowledge passed on to him by West Lancs member Ian Finnis, the caddie of Tommy Fleetwood, to full advantage to card rounds of 68 and 65, finishing top of the pile.
“You know what Finno is like! He will say it’s amazing no matter what, but it’s genuinely amazing and one of the nicest links courses I’ve played,” Wallace said.
“We had the amazing weather and it’s been beautiful this afternoon, but it’s a genuinely stunning golf course and it’s a fair golf course.
“There’s bunkers placed in some amazing spots that really get your attention and yeah, I really like it.”
The venue’s neighbours Formby, Southport and Ainsdale, Hillside and, of course, Birkdale make up a remarkable stretch of golf courses in very close proximity.
When I arrived just after 7am, the crowd was already circled around Sergio Garcia as he performed a last handful of practice chips before teeing off with Jamie Donaldson and Matthew Jordan.
The spectators, largely from the Liverpool area and the north-west, were keen to see Hoylake member Jordan play well, as well as watching former US Open champion Graeme McDowell too.
But really, there was only one man they were interested in.
Despite recent incidents including a ruling rant at last year’s Wells Fargo Championship and an unexplained withdrawal at Wentworth, Garcia is still loved by UK golf fans and the size of the crowd on Merseyside was evidence of this.
A perk of Final Qualifying is the chance for fans to walk the fairways with the players – a privilege perhaps taken advantage of as the players waded through the masses at times.
But as a one-off, it was great to walk side-by-side with golf magicians at work.
Finnis himself was out and about at the course he belongs to. Former Premier League champion Danny Drinkwater was also enjoying a day on the links.
Marshals had the unenviable task of controlling the crowd which became extremely difficult on the 7th hole, as fans surrounded the elevated tee box in close quarters to Garcia and co.
One marshal asked several times for people to move, but they weren’t ready to give up the opportunity to watch a Masters champion pierce a driver up near the green so close up – which is what he did.
Jordan and Donaldson both hit provisional balls from this elevated tee as their first shots went sailing right. This time, the crowds were helpful in locating the balls.
Having watched Garcia play his first nine, I hopped over to McDowell who was playing with amateur Kris Diamond and former amateur champion Garrick Porteous.
The Northern Irishman told me he was ‘links-rusty’ after eventually finishing tied for 11th. He hasn’t played in a major since 2021 and hasn’t appeared at The Open since 2019.
Always keen to please the following fans, McDowell lifted his cap and bowed when pushing his approach to the 13th right of the green – only to see the contours bring his ball to the centre of the putting surface.
The afternoon rounds began, and in shaky fashion, Jordan three-putted the 1st hole and could’ve feared the worst before surging to a 69 to finish in a tie for second.
I went over to watch Alex Fitzpatrick who now wants to forge his own way in the golf world and remove the tag of ‘Matt Fitzpatrick’s brother’.
I found him in deep rough on the par-5 11th hole. He thrashed out and managed to fashion a birdie putt which he couldn’t believe missed.
On the par-3 12th hole, his tee shot was pulled left, much to his annoyance, and hit a spectator after bouncing once. Luckily, no damage was done, and it was all very amicable.
I thought I’d run ahead to sit on the bank behind the 15th green. Garcia, Donaldson, and Jordan approached, and Donaldson was forced to step away from his par putt after a spectator’s phone rang as he was about to play.
The very same phone rang just after Garcia had missed his birdie putt before that. We could’ve seen an interesting exchange had it sounded a couple of seconds before.
Fitzpatrick and amateurs Tiger Christensen and Tim Harry were stopped in their tracks by a group of ducks, or a waddling as I’ve since found out, invading the same green.
Fitzpatrick uttered the words ‘great shot Tiger’ before entering the putting surface after a pinpoint approach from the German to this tricky par 4.
His caddie Connor Winstanley tried but failed to move the ducks and Fitzpatrick finally shoed them away. He and Tiger then made crucial birdies which helped them both make The Open for the first time.
Unexpected disturbance alert! ?— National Club Golfer (@NCG_com) July 4, 2023
A group of ducks have invaded the 15th green @WestLancsGC ?
Alex Fitzpatrick and his caddie eventually herded them away so play could continue! pic.twitter.com/d0Gj7Vg9bR
His name comes from his father’s friend who is a retired boxer named ‘Tiger’ and he wasn’t short of confidence heading into the day in Liverpool.
“I don’t want to sound cocky, but I was pretty certain about qualifying this week because I played in US Open Qualifying this year and I fell just short, but a lot of my friends from college qualified.
“A lot of guys I know well qualified for the US Open this year, so I felt like it’s not too far away, so I just had to do what they did and play my game.”
Fitzpatrick embraced Wallace afterward outside the scoring tent as both Englishmen made the 151st Open field on what was a scorching day on Merseyside.
At that point, Fitzpatrick’s place wasn’t quite confirmed with other competitors still battling away, but after the evening was up, he was able to pose for a picture with the iconic yellow Open flag in front of the scoreboard.
South Africa’s Kyle Barker, of Serengeti Golf Estate, finished tied second with Jordan on 10-under to make his first-ever major.
Barker’s superb display was just another heartwarming story on a glorious day at West Lancs which didn’t disappoint.
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