HE HAS got over the stage where he thought he was “Gunga Din or Captain Scarlet” and set to “conquer the world” by the time he was 25.
Since seeing his career enjoy a second wind, Paul McKechnie has learned to appreciate that it takes hard toil to make golfing dreams come true. Today, at the age of 37, one of his will come true when he makes his Open Championship debut.
One of only two players to make it to Hoylake after starting out at the regional qualifying stage – local factory worker John Singleton is the other – McKechnie is almost bursting with excitement.
“It feels fantastic,” he said after completing his preparations with a practice round along with Stephen Gallacher, Paul Lawrie and Bradley Neil. “There’s a bit of naivety when you qualify, you think, ‘Yeah, great, I’m going to play in the Open’.
“But, when you get here, it’s so special. The course is so fair, scoring will be good – and you get treated like a king for a week, a wee bit different from the Challenge Tour.
“The best moment so far was my first [practice] round, walking on to the first tee. It’s a bit claustrophobic over there and you just think, ‘Oh, ya beauty’. The hairs on the back of your neck just stand up.
“Obviously when you play Challenge Tour events, you don’t see many spectators in some events. So, if you’re off early on a Saturday morning, the whole thing is a bit flat. You come here and the atmosphere is crackling. From the first tee to the horseshoe of stands around the 18th green, it’s something else.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best golf tournament on the planet. It would supersede the Masters and all the rest for me.”
McKechnie lives in Milton-of-Campsie, north of Glasgow, but is attached to the Braid Hills Golf Centre in Edinburgh. As a fledgling professional, he topped the first PGAEuroPro Tour Order of Merit in 2002 only to see his career go into reverse thereafter.
After a spell back on the Tartan Tour, he shone on the third-tier circuit again last season to earn a Challenge Tour card this year. “It is better second time around. You appreciate it more,” he reflected. “When you are young, you are Gunga Din or Captain Scarlet – you’re untouchable, invincible. You think you’re going to conquer the world by the time you’re 25. This time around, I appreciate that it takes a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication. So far, it’s been worth every minute.”
So far this week he’s played with two former major winners, his round with Lawrie having been preceded by one with Sandy Lyle.
“The thing that struck me most was how relaxed he is, he doesn’t really bring a lot of stress and anxiety to the party,” he said of that experience. “I grew up watching Sandy and I’ll admit I nipped his ear a wee bit about the bunker shot on 18 at Augusta, the 7-iron. It was my duty.”
McKechnie, who will have Swede Kristoffer Broberg, last weekend’s Scottish Open runner-up, for company when he sets out today, almost didn’t make it to the starting gate in the regional qualifier at Bruntsfield just over three weeks ago.
“I had been playing in Antwerp, made the ferry by about five minutes, made my flight by two minutes, drove up the road, had about five hours’ sleep and then got up to drive through to Edinburgh,” he recalled.
“It was some journey – and I do sometimes think, ‘Oh, what would have happened if I hadn’t made that flight?’
“You know, fate can have some funny turns. It had been a quiet start to the season for me, I started to get things going on the Challenge Tour – and five minutes later I’m playing in the Open.
“I’ve been dreaming of this pretty much since I decided to be a golfer. When you’re daft as a brush at 14 or 15, you watch the greats on TV and think you can do that. But, when I think back a couple of years, I was on the Tartan Tour, never even dreaming about this.
“The big thing that I’ve noticed this week is that these guys are great golfers – but they’re not superhuman, nowhere near it. They are what they are, they’ve only got 14 clubs and they’re hitting the same kind of balls I’m hitting. I’ve got a massive amount of respect for them but it’s a competition to see who can get the ball in the hole fastest, that’s it.”
The resurgence of McKechnie’s career has coincided with him linking up with Alan McCloskey, the Bothwell Castle club professional. His growing reputation as a coach is reflected by the fact he also has Marc Warren, Scott Jamieson and Brett Rumford in this week’s field.
“He is a super enthusiast and what he is doing now, to be honest, should have been happening ten years ago,” said McCloskey of McKechnie.
“I’ve always viewed Paul as someone who should be playing on the European Tour, but he wasn’t working on the right programme. I know he is going on 40, but it is certainly not too late for him.”