An Open fairytale: On the course with Team Alfie
You’re not supposed to take pictures on championship days but Team Alfie are in full revolt.
As their man crouches down to read his putt on the green, the giant scoreboard behind him screams the incredible news that is sending them into fever pitch – and thrusting their mobiles into the air.
He is tied for the lead at the Open. Poulter, Spieth, Rose… and Alfie Plant. It’s not bad company, is it?
You hear Team Alfie long before you see them. They are here in force, a travelling army that must be more than 100 strong.
The nearby Pontin’s has fallen to their charms and, when the European Amateur champion birdies the first hole, it feels like they are going to take over Royal Birkdale as well.
Plant didn’t even feel his first tee shot come off the clubhead – and admitted he was surprised the ball went straight.
But when his putt finds the bottom of the cup, he’s almost blown backwards by the cheering – a raucous yell that punctures the early morning Southport gloom.
They’ve come from all over to turn this famous links into a small corner of Kent, but mainly from Plant’s home club at Sundridge Park.
They’re as distinctive as the marshals, with their white T-shirts emblazoned with the hashtag #TeamAlfie in bright red lettering.
— The Open (@TheOpen) July 20, 2017
It’s a little mark of support but it has a startlingly visual effect when you see them all lined up at the side of the fairway and filling up every nook and cranny around the green.
And it’s having an energising effect on their charge.
It feels like Plant wants to put on a show. After missing the green at the short 4th, he produces an up-and-down of which Sunday’s winner will be more than proud.
Missing it right, he’s not only got a bunker to get over but he’s got to negotiate a tricky slope that’s waiting to send his ball hurtling to the back of the green.
So what does Plant do? He almost holes it.
He’s making nervy four and five footers – the type of putts that send the likes of us to therapy – and he’s finishing them like they are tap-ins.
Plant’s dad, Darren, has a privileged spot inside the ropes but he’s greeting well wishers and supporters like they are lost family.
“How are your fingernails?” one asks him on the 9th. “I can’t breathe but I’m all right,” is the reply.
Plant birdies 10 to get into red figures once more, provoking another thunderous sound that quakes round the course, and everyone wonders just how far he might go.
But midway through the back nine, he faces a really serious character test.
He’s been making putts all day but he bogeys 13 and then doubles 14. He’s lost three shots in two holes.
Dad looks anguished and, for the only time in a four-and-a-half hour round that feels more like a carnival than a golf tournament, his supporters are temporarily silenced.
Tellingly, though, the smile that’s been fixed like a Cheshire Cat’s to Plant’s face as he negotiates the course hasn’t left.
He crashes a drive down the fairway on 15 and a birdie putt just slips by. On 16, he negotiates another crazy up and down out of a bunker that has the whole of a full grandstand in raptures.
Plant momentarily blushes and then raises his sand iron into the air. Anirban Lahiri flashes a huge grin of his own and the Welling youngster is back into the Open stratosphere.
He reduces the par 5 penultimate hole to a driver and a mid-iron, repairing some of the damage of earlier with a two putt birdie that once more elicits what’s now becoming a trademark roar.
And if the walk down 18 is magical, the feeling that must sweep through his being when he holes yet another awkward short putt in front of a packed grandstand to finish with 71 must be indescribable.
“What’s it all about, Alfie?” shouts a wag high up in the 18th in very timely fashion. Plant can’t help but crease up again. It’s been the almost perfect start.
“It lived up to expectations and more,” he says when asked to relive his round. “It was a nice way to start – and the walk up 18, you’re not going to get a better feeling than that.
“I could have kept going out there, it was so enjoyable.”
Where are Team Alfie now? “A few are sure to be in the beer tent,” their idol remarks.
“They were loud, at times. They were good. They were following me round and they had all their T-shirts on and I’m sure a few people saw them out there.
“There’s going to be a few more tomorrow.”
You won’t need to watch out for them. Just follow the noise.
For more from Royal Birkdale, check out our dedicated Open site.