GOLF’s biggest lottery takes place in East Lothian today, with two former Ryder Cup captains among those hoping to land the jackpot of a place in the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield in a fortnight’s time.
With a 288-man field chasing just 12 spots – three each at Dunbar, Gullane, Musselburgh and North Berwick – the Local Final Qualifying is no place for the faint-hearted and one bad shot over 36 holes could prove costly.
However, Australian Steve Elkington will provide the inspiration for the majority of hopefuls after he came close to claiming the Claret Jug on the East Lothian coast 11 years ago, losing out in a four-man play-off to Ernie Els, after he’d qualified on that occasion at Dunbar.
Elkington, of course, already had a major pedigree by that stage in his career – he beat Colin Montgomerie in a play-off to win the 1995 USPGA Championship at Riviera Country Club – but that’s not to say the successful qualifiers this year will be heading to Muirfield simply to make up the numbers when the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers stages the world’s oldest major for a 16th time.
Take Montgomerie, for example. Deep down, the man who is sure to attract the main spectator interest at any of the aforementioned venues when he launches his bid at Gullane in the company of two players who are both less than half his age – Archerfield’s Zack Saltman and English amateur Max Orrin – believes he can still make one final tilt at a regular major and few will be trying harder than him today.
“The Open is the biggest championship in the game and we all want to play in it,” said the eight-time European No 1, who received a timely boost for this particular test when he tied for ninth on Sunday in the Senior Players Championship – his over-50s debut – in Pittsburgh. “Any time it’s played in Scotland it’s a bit extra special for me and I’m hopeful I can qualify and take my place at Muirfield.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for the likes of Montgomerie and two of his Senior Tour colleagues – 1999 Ryder Cup captain Mark James and former PGA champion Andrew Oldcorn – will be having to play two rounds in one day, the challenge for the trio having been intensified by Gullane proving the sternest physical test as well as having a reputation for separating men from the boys.
“There’s definitely been a buzz here since it was announced Monty was playing at Gullane,” said club professional Alasdair Good. “I know he was unable to play in last week’s European International Final Qualifier at Sunningdale but, at the same time, it’s great that he’s decided to support The Open by entering the Local Final Qualifying.
“For me, it’s actually a case of seeing Colin go full circle because I remember him trying to qualify at Barassie for The Open in 1989 when I was an assistant at Royal Troon. I reckon he’ll enjoy the test awaiting him on this occasion. It’s the first big test for changes that have been made to the course since we last staged Open qualifying.
“I wouldn’t say the rough is too penal, though a few warm days can make a difference, but we are hoping for a bit of a breeze to make it the best challenge possible.”
For 24-year-old Saltman and Orrin, an 18-year-old who reached the semi-finals of the Amateur Championship in his native Kent just under a fortnight ago, the challenge already looks formidable given they’re both likely to find themselves playing in front of the biggest gallery of their careers.
“On the one hand, I’m thinking I’d have been better going under the radar in an event like this, especially with such a big prize on offer,” admitted Saltman, who caddied for his big brother, Elliot, at Turnberry in 2009 then again at Royal Lytham 12 months ago. “But, on the other, it’s a great draw because one thing for certain is that there will be a lot of people there wanting to see how Monty gets on.”
Plenty other Scots will be strongly supported, too, and it would be disappointing if, at the very least, a couple of those berths up for grabs didn’t have names of home players on them at the end of what promises to be a long day, with a strong possibility of play-offs being required.
Two-time European Tour winner Alastair Forsyth certainly has the class to come through a test like this, as does Steven O’Hara, while the aforementioned Elliot Saltrman will take huge confidence from earning his Open ticket through this stage twice already, a feat another of his brothers, Lloyd, achieved four years ago and is bidding to repeat. Having cut his golfing teeth in East Lothian, Raymond Russell certainly won’t be lacking any incentive while the same applies to Craigielaw’s Grant Forrest, one of the amateurs tantalisingly close to securing the chance to rub shoulders with the world’s greatest players.
Today marks the end of the Local Final Qualifying in its current form, which is a great pity. For a lucky few, it will bring joy. For the majority, though, it will be the end of a dream – for another year at least.