In the excellent Open Secrets, Robert Winder tells the story of the 2009 championship at Turnberry – from the start of the Open qualifying process to the dramatic nostalgia-filled denouement.
Winder traces the thrills and spills, listens to the players and administrators, and describes the many ways in which the Open truly is open: to the world, to the elements, and to the never ending outrages of fortune. It is quite a story and one that reoccurs – just with different protagonists every year.
There are many routes into the Open – the qualifying process is extensive, far-reaching, and designed to provide a truly international field.
On June 26 of this year, Regional Open Qualifying took place at venues across Britain and Ireland. Evocative venues such as Fairhaven, Little Aston, Alwoodley, Frilford and Luffenham Heath had their day in the sun and played host to hundreds of amateurs and professionals daring to dream of making it through to final qualifying and, of course, eventually teeing it up at Birkdale in a few weeks’ time.
Sport needs weekend warriors, it needs have-a-go heroes, it needs the delusions of the dreamer. Who hasn’t imagined holing putt to win the Open?
This route into the Open is tightening. More spots are being passed over to the world’s touring professionals, thus creating a stronger and more international field. And while that is wholly sensible, it is also a great shame.
Each year football fans get excited about the “magic of the FA Cup”. The romance is created in the one-off nature of the ties giving rise to acts of giant-killing and derring-do that the league cannot provide.
Moreover amateur and semi-professional clubs have a chance, all be it a slim chance, of making it into the first round proper or even the heady heights of round three when the big boys enter the draw. It is the likes of Sutton, Lincoln, Hereford that we all remember, it is what gives the FA Cup its special flavour.
Open qualifying does that for golf. Any professional and any golfer with a handicap of scratch can throw their hat in the ring and have a go. Sport needs weekend warriors, it needs have-a-go heroes, it needs the delusions of the dreamer. Who hasn’t imagined holing a putt to win the Open? Open qualifying gives you the merest sniff of the barmaid’s apron.
What Open qualifying also does is pit amateurs against professionals. These days elite amateurs are the equal, if not the superior, of their professional counterparts – witness the recent performance of elite amateurs in the Open, and the way the very best increasingly make smooth transitions into the paid ranks.
Indeed at least one amateur qualified from each of the 13 venues this year. There is still something quite special, something romantic, about amateurs playing against professionals. Golf has a famous history in this regard. In the beginning the amateur player was the gentleman and the professional very much considered second class, essentially a worker who, in many cases, doubled up as ‘the keeper of the green’.
Have a glance around the honours board of the country’s great clubs and you will notice some winners’ names are prefixed ‘Mr’. They are the amateurs – professionals were deemed not worthy of having their full names used.
Mark Frost’s The Match recounts a game that is billed as the one that changed golf forever. A bet between two billionaires pitched the best of golfers of their era, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, against top amateurs Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi. It was designed to settle the professional v amateur debate once and for all. The details, I suspect, are subject to much exaggeration and hyperbole, but the prospect is mouth-watering, isn’t it?
These days only the Sunningdale Foursomes provides this opportunity. It’s an incredible early-season event where amateurs and professionals compete side by side for a trophy with more than 80 years of history. Each year the field has notable names among its number – this year Sandy Lyle and Paul Lawrie teed it up alongside the rest of us.
More of this would be brilliant wouldn’t it?
How good would it be if you could create an event that was the top pros in the world against the top amateurs? You could take it to a proper old-school venue and play just for the sake of playing. Wishful thinking I know, but our game has a great history and just sometimes it feels like we should cherish and celebrate it more than we do.
And for those wondering how I got on in Open qualifying, I shot 88 at my home course and came in last of those who recorded a score. And I loved every minute.