Connor Syme was “buzzing” when, at the age of just nine, he got Phil Mickelson’s golf ball as a memento at the 2005 Open Championship.
Now the Fifer will be the proud recipient of the same coveted player’s badge as Mickelson for the event’s 146th staging after joining Ian Poulter in a 15-strong group to progress to Royal Birkdale in a fortnight’s time from five final qualifiers.
Syme, a 21-year-old amateur, shared first place with American Julian Suri at Gailes Links in Ayrshire, where the final spot was claimed by Australian Ryan McCarthy in a four-man play-off, after carding the best round of the day – a four-under-par 67 – in a testing wind that whipped up after heavy morning rain stopped around lunchtime.
Having picked up two late birdies in an opening 71, Syme effectively secured what will be his major debut over three holes on the back nine as the pressure started to mount on a packed leaderboard. He fashioned a brilliant up and down to save par at the short 12th, holed from 12 feet for a birdie at the next then hit a 4-iron to ten feet for an eagle at the 14th.
“I played awesome, especially to be bogey-free this afternoon,” he said after making a quick phone call to his father and coach, Drumoig Golf Centre PGA professional Stuart, to tell him the good news.
“It is amazing to be in The Open and I was thinking about that out there even though I was trying to stay in the moment.”
As a reward for winning the Australian Amateur Championship last year, Syme played in the Australian Open in November before also teeing up in the Joburg Open on the European Tour earlier this season. He is hoping both those experiences stand him in good stead for a first taste of the world’s oldest major as a competitor. “The first Open my dad took me to was at Troon in ’04 and I was buzzing after getting Phil Mickelson’s ball at St Andrews in ’05,” added the Walker Cup contender after joining four of his compatriots – Sandy Lyle, Paul Lawrie, Russell Knox and Martin Laird – in the Lancashire line-up.
Suri, a 26-year-old NewYorker who is based in Florida, led by a shot after a morning 69 before signing for the same second-round score to also finish on four under. Following in the footsteps of US Open champion Brooks Koepka, he has come over to play on the Challenge Tour, winning in the Czech Republic this season to lead the Road to Oman. Having rushed off to change his soaking wet socks after the morning round, Suri bounced back from his day getting a “little rocky” after taking a double-bogey 6 at the 11th in the second circuit by hitting his “best shot all year” with a 3-iron to set up a ten-foot birdie at the next.
“This will be my first major, but I feel it is deserved because I have played some really good golf this year,” he said. “This is my first time playing links golf and I feel as though I handled it well in typical summer Scottish conditions. It was such a mental grind in the weather and it is pleasing to have put it together over 36 holes. I have always been intrigued with links golf and always got up early in the morning to watch The Open on TV back home. Indeed, the first one I remember watching was Mark O’Meara winning at Birkdale in 1998 and now it is surreal for me to be playing there.”
McCarthy, a 27-year-old from Tasmania, birdied the first extra hole from eight feet to claim the final spot at the expense of Scot Paul Shields, Englishman Mark Young and Dane Martin Boel Ovesen in a play-off after they had tied on two under.
Poulter, who finished second behind Padraig Harrington in the last Open at Birkdale nine years ago, shot rounds of 70 and 68 to qualify at Woburn, his home club. “Obviously going back to Birkdale after what happened in 2008 is special,” he said. “I thought I had that 15-foot putt (on the 72nd) to maybe win or get in a play-off and then my Irish friend (Harrington) decided to go bananas on the last five holes.”