THE R&A’s new format for the Open Championship Final Qualifying stage proved an instant hit for the Scots yesterday.
Taking advantage of the geographically-based decision that allowed them to play on familiar territory at Gailes Links, Marc Warren, Jamie McLeary and Paul McKechnie secured the spots in the Claret Jug joust at Royal Liverpool in just over a fortnight.
On a sun-kissed day on the Ayrshire coast, Warren won the two-round shoot-out on nine-under (69, 64) to secure his second successive appearance in the game’s oldest major. Two behind, having set a new course record with his eight-under 63 opening effort, McLeary will be making his major debut on Merseyside and so, too, will McKechnie. Of the trio, his success was perhaps the most praiseworthy. Forty to the turn in the morning, his hopes looked slim, but the 37-year-old Milton-of-Campsie man’s afternoon 67 got him into a play-off with Edinburgh-born Welshman Rhys Davies as the pair both finished on three-under.
It was an opportunity McKechnie, a former EuroPro Tour No 1 who is playing on the Challenge Tour this season after seeing his career enjoy a second wind, wasn’t going to slip from his grasp. A birdie at the first extra hole, where he holed from eight feet, did the job and he is now Hoylake-bound along with Warren and McLeary.
“Sometimes when you are practising you find yourself saying ‘this putt to get into The Open’,” he said. “Well, it was and I’m proud of myself that I was able to take that chance. I knew I had to get my finger out quickly after being 40 to the bend in the morning.”
The trio’s success means Scotland will have a minimum of seven representatives at The Open this time around. The others will be former winners Sandy Lyle and Paul Lawrie, as well as Stephen Gallacher, whose place was secured through him finishing in the top 20 in last season’s Race to Dubai, and Amateur champion Bradley Neil.
That figure could still be bolstered through either this week’s French Open or the Scottish Open next week, but, in addition to McKechnie, it is also mission accomplished now for Warren and McLeary as they produced superb performances to secure the top two spots in some style.
Warren, a two-times European Tour winner who made his Open Championship debut at Muirfield last year, booked his ticket back into the event following rounds of 69 and 64 to finish on nine-under.
“I was really confident as it’s a course I play a lot,” said the 33-year-old after signing off in style in the afternoon by holing from a greenside bunker for a birdie. “The club are kind to let us play here and it’s some of the better greens we putt on in Scotland.
“It means a lot to get back into The Open. Last year was my first taste of it. But I was frustrated as I was close to making the cut and you want another shot at it.”
McLeary agonisingly missed out on Muirfield by a shot 12 last year. A run of eight missed cuts in a row suggested he had struggle to get in the reckoning again but the form book was tossed out the window. In the morning, he holed a 25-yard bunker shot for an eagle-2 at the 13th. Coupled with seven birdies, it saw him sign for that 63.
A new course record by no less than four shots, eclipsing the efforts of both Elliot Saltman and Thomas Aiken in the same event in 2009, it was met by astonished looks from his fellow competitors. His afternoon round was a different affair after three shots were spilled early on. He rallied, though, and, like Warren, secured his spot with something to spare.
“I was getting a bit worried after the way I started my second round, but I’m delighted to get the job done,” said Bonnyrigg-based McLeary, also 33.
“To come here and do this, especially scoring as I did in the first round, is pleasing. Everyone – apart from the Americans maybe – knows The Open is the biggest tournament in the world. It’s always something I wanted to do. It now means that in the last six or seven months I’ve achieved two of the things I most wanted to do as a golfer – qualifying for The Open and getting on to the European Tour.”