Interview: Grant Forrest on the magnitude of Muirfield

Granted his wish: Grant Forrest is planning to enjoy the Open experience. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

Granted his wish: Grant Forrest is planning to enjoy the Open experience. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

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ONLY now does Grant Forrest appreciate the magnitude of his achievement. The 20-year-old amateur came through local final qualifying for the Open less than a fortnight ago, but it wasn’t until he set about practising at Muirfield last week that he began to realise what he had done.

He and Lloyd Saltman were walking up the first fairway on Wednesday when the chap ahead waved them through. Nothing out of the ordinary, you might think, except that the chap ahead was Justin Rose, recently-crowned US Open champion, doing a photo shoot on the opening green.

So far, so surreal. By the time the two Scots were ready to tee off at the second, Rose was alongside them, introducing himself and standing back to watch them hit. Forrest is glad to report that he ripped it down the middle, albeit not without a few nerves. “I was shaking,” he admits. The name checks do not stop there. The hope is that Phil Mickelson – whose brother, Tim, recruited Forrest for the golf programme at the University of San Diego – can be persuaded to play one of his practice rounds with the young Scot, who is a member of nearby Craigielaw.

“I’m not expecting too much,” insists Forrest. “Phil is a busy man and he likes his privacy when he’s at tournaments, but it would be really cool if it came off. Even in practice, guys like that will have big crowds following them so it would be great to get a taste of it so that, when the tournament starts, you are used to it.”

Forrest is in the second year of an accountancy degree at San Diego, but this crash course in major-championship golf is something else again. Only last summer, he was earning extra pocket money by caddying at Muirfield. This week, packed galleries will be there to watch him play, which is not how he expected his vacation to pan out.

“I knew I was going to be trying to qualify for the Open, but when you actually get in, it’s a different feeling. It didn’t sink in for about a week. I was down there Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. And it’s then, when you see [Rory] McIlroy, [Ernie] Els, Vijay Singh, and you shake hands with Justin Rose, that it really hits you. I’m going to be playing with these guys.”

The good news is that Forrest is a strong character. Since moving to East Lothian when he was 12, he has come through the ranks at Craigielaw, inspired partly by Saltman, the clubmate whose own amateur heroics won him the Silver Medal at the 2005 Open. Forrest has represented Scotland since he was 15. His victories include the 2010 Scottish Boys Championship.

His coach, Jonathan Porteous, the head professional at Craigielaw, says that Forrest’s mental ability sets him apart. “I’ve come across a ton of really good golfers but most of them don’t have that winning mentality, that ability to go out and win under pressure. There’s not many people like that. That’s why so few make it in the pro ranks. When you’re coaching him, he will always listen, be interested, and he’ll question you. He’s done that from a young age, which is great. It shows that he is learning and that he understands his golf swing.”

Forrest describes himself as a fiery player, by which he means that he has sometimes been too animated on the course, but he has learned to channel those emotions more effectively. He has matured no end since deciding two years ago to try the US college system, where he could combine his golf with the security of a degree.

“A lot of the amateur guys from Craigielaw kind of struggled a bit when they turned pro so I just felt I needed something behind me. I’m pretty good academically so I thought, ‘why not get the best of both worlds?’ Great golf, great weather and an education to go with it. It’s hard to do that in Scotland, where it’s either full-time amateur golf or a university where, in winter, you don’t have the facilities or the opportunities you have in America.

“Once I get my degree, it will take a lot of the weight off my shoulders. I don’t want to be saying ‘if the golf doesn’t work out, what on earth am I going to do?’”

Forrest has had to grow up fast these last couple of years, and not just because he has been Stateside, doing his own washing. Three weeks before he won the Scottish Amateur at Royal Dornoch last summer, he lost his father, Graeme, to cancer. Porteous says that he has handled the tragedy with maturity “way beyond his years”.

“It’s not been an easy year at all,” says Forrest. “My dad’s mum died just a few months after him. And I lost my grandad the year before. That’s three close family members in less than two years. You’re going to have moments when you think of them, but my dad just wanted me to do the best I could so I have to keep going. A lot of people have said he’d be really proud of me playing in the Open, and I know that’s true, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself.”

Forrest is one of ten Scots in the field, the most in an Open for nearly a decade. While he will have the backing of the home support, there will be no burden of expectation. His caddy will be his friend and fellow Craigielaw member, Greg Smail, a familiar face if it gets lonely between the ropes. Together, they plan to enjoy themselves, irrespective of the outcome.

Forrest, who pulled out of last week’s European Amateur Team Championship to prepare for Muirfield, believes that the course’s mental challenge will be a blessing in disguise. So concentrated will he be on its relentless demands that there is unlikely to be room for distractions.

Forrest has nothing to lose. His only previous experience of a professional event was last year’s Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, when he missed the cut. Yes, he has one eye on the Silver Medal for leading amateur, and yes, he would love to make the cut, but this is the Open for goodness sake, and Forrest is barely out of his teens.

“It’s something you dream of. When people ask you what you want to do in your career, you say ‘compete in the majors’, even win them. So yeah, getting a chance to play in one so early is a bit of a surprise. All I can do is stay in the moment, focus on each shot and whatever happens happens. The main thing is that I enjoy it. I’m going to soak up every minute.”

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