One of the Open's nicest traditions continued on Saturday as Portrush's head pro Gary McNeill got to dust off his clubs. Mark Townsend followed his progress
Less than three weeks ago the Royal Portrush head pro Gary McNeill tried qualifying for the Open at Baltray. That ended in a 6-over 78 and this would be his most recent round of golf.
Now, a short iron from his everyday place of work, he was acting as marker to Paul Waring after 73 players made the cut on Friday night. At 9.35am the pro shop was unsurprisingly shut as his staff would be there to see him on his way and, to their credit, they hadn’t organised a sweepstake on what he might score.
“I was actually OK on the 1st tee,” he told me. “I went down to the range last night and I was hitting it quite well this morning, but as soon as I took the club back it felt like a feather.
“My backswing was over before I knew it and it was a bit low left off the heel. After that I drove the ball really well and didn’t miss many fairways,” explained McNeill who was joined at the other end of the media platform by the current champion Francesco Molinari.
This is one of the Open’s nicest traditions. The R&A leave it up to the host club to decide who will act as marker and it’s generally the head pro, one of his assistants or a club champion. Part of the reason is to add his company, another to maintain the right pace of play. There’s also the very nice nod to someone who’s served the club for years – McNeill has been the head pro for coming up to 20 and the club’s members were behind him every step of the way.
To make it even sweeter he had local legend Paul ‘The Rocket’ Rodich on his pencil bag, Rodich has been a member of Portrush for 45 years and a part-time caddie for 52. His first round with a bag on his back gave him a payday of 10 shillings.
“It’s been in the back of my mind for a long time but when you get the call it’s nuts. I had a wee look about half past eight and it didn’t seem to change much after that. It’s a toss of a coin, odd or even and it came down odd.
“I actually slept OK last night, I was early to bed and I’m really glad I put myself through it. After the 1st I drove it pretty well off the tee, the putter was a bit jiggy early on but after that it was OK and Paul was lovely to play with, a great guy.”
It doesn’t matter what McNeill shot but that’s pretty much all we want to know and a glance at the scorer’s sheet told us that he was round in 9-over, just five worse than his playing partner and very respectable.
“The course is playing really firm and long off those back tees for an old fellow like me and there were some really tough pin positions.”
For Waring it was also something else, he had never played with a marker before.
“I was nervous on the 1st tee with the volume and the number of people so god knows what Gary was feeling like,” he said. “We were clapped from tee to green and from green to tee for 18 holes and he settled down after a few holes and played very nicely at times and got the crowd going so it was a really nice experience.”
Not your typical Saturday game.
Royal Portrush Head Pro Gary McNeill is playing in The Open as a marker.pic.twitter.com/O6evhMmuKi
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) July 20, 2019
The biggest roar of the day came at the 17th when McNeill rolled in a 35-footer across the green having driven into the junk down the left-hand side. Maybe the best bit though was the driver-iron combination to 15 feet that set up a very special walk down the last.
“I’ve sat in the grandstands and been to a lot of Opens over the years so that was quite a moment. The idea of the Open coming here and then to see it all come together is amazing.”