ROCK bottom ten months ago following a first Walker Cup snub in more than 60 years, Scotland’s stock in amateur golf has risen dramatically again after Bradley Neil underlined his talent by winning its Blue Riband event.
A hard-earned 2&1 success over South African Zander Lombard in the 36-hole final at Royal Portrush saw the 18-year-old from Blairgowrie become the first Scot to claim the Amateur Championship since Forfar’s Stuart Wilson a decade ago.
Neil, the youngest Scot to land the title, will now play in the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool next month as well as next year’s Masters at Augusta and US Open at Chambers Bay. In between, it seems certain he will also represent Europe in the Junior Ryder Cup at his home club.
“I’m so proud that my name has been added to the illustrious list of past winners of this Championship,” declared Neil after securing a success that means Scotland currently holds three of the top titles in the amateur game.
After that bitter disappointment of failing to have a single player picked for the Walker Cup, Bearsden’s Ewen Ferguson sparked the revival by winning the Boys’ Championship at Royal Liverpool last August before Grant Forrest, from Craigielaw, recently won the St Andrews Links Trophy.
That was resolved in a play-off involving Forrest and Neil and, although the Perthshire player missed out on that occasion, he hasn’t had to wait long to land adequate compensation in the shape of amateur golf’s biggest prize.
“No way I was going to let something like this slip; no chance,” added Neil, who first rubber-stamped his potential when winning the English Under-14 and Scottish Under-14 Championships in successive seasons and has improved with each passing year since then.
He added the Scottish Boys’ title at the beginning of last season before being unfazed by a late call-up for the European Men’s Team Championship in Denmark, an experience that was matched later last year when he joined forces with American Peter Uihlein in the team section of the Dunhill Links Championship.
Suitably impressed, Uihlein donated the £10,000 he received for the pair finishing joint-second to the Scottish Golf Union to specifically help with Neil’s playing expenses and last year’s European Tour Rookie of the Year contacted the Scot via Twitter on Saturday night to wish him luck in the title showdown. “To play in front of big crowds like this is incredible,” said Neil of those mouth-watering dates that have just been added to his schedule this year and next. “I would like to thank my caddie Michael Stewart,” he added. “This win is not just for me – it is for everyone that has helped me.”
Neil will join former champions Sandy Lyle and Paul Lawrie as well as Stephen Gallacher in next month’s Claret Jug joust. “It means a lot to me to have the chance to compete with major champions in The Open,” he added. “It will be a strong test and it will be good to see how my game copes.”
Since Wilson’s win at St Andrews, three Scots – John Gallagher (2005), James Byrne (2010) and Michael Stewart (2011) – had reached the final only to see their bids fall agonisingly short. Neil, who booked his spot in the title shoot-out by beating Connor Syme, another talented Scottish teenager, in Saturday’s semi-finals, stopped that trend by digging deep when the chips were down.
Watched by father Rodney and brother Connor, Neil used some polished short-game skills to prevent 19-year-old Lombard from building a significant advantage in the morning, when the South African hit 16 greens in regulation compared to the eight found by his opponent.
In a nip-and-tuck affair, it wasn’t until the back nine in the afternoon that Neil made the telling thrust. Lombard opened the door by bogeying the par-4 28th and the par-3 29th. Neil then won the 31st hole with a bogey after Lombard lost his ball with his drive and the next with a par-3.
The situation looked ominous for Lombard as he fell four behind, but he showed his resilience to win the next two holes with birdie threes, including holing from off the green from 20 feet on the 34th hole. It was all over, though, when the penultimate hole was halved in pars. “Thumbs up to Bradley,” said a gracious Lombard. “He’s an awesome golfer with a lot of talent.”