First we had Justin Rose in 1998. Then it was Chris Wood a decade later. Royal Birkdale has a habit of throwing up amateur dramatics and there’s a chance of it being a Scot in the spotlight this time around.
Connor Syme, a 22-year-old Fifer, has already shown his mettle against the pros, having shared top spot in one of the final qualifiers for the 146th Open Championship at Gailes Links in Ayrshire just over a fortnight ago.
Now he’s relishing the prospect of testing himself against the best in the business in Soutport, where the Drumoig player faces English duo Alfie Plant and Harry Ellis, as well as American Maverick McNealy and Italian Luca Cianchetti, in a battle for the Silver Medal. “That’s the target, which requires making the cut so that has to be the first goal, and it’s not unrealistic goal for any of us,” said Syme, whose preparations for what will be his major debut included a few holes earlier in the week with Race to Duabi leader Tommy Fleetwood.
“I played nine holes with him on Monday and he was a really nice guy,” said last year’s Australian Amateur champion and one of two Scots – Robert MacIntyre is the other one – currently in the top 10 in the world amateur rankings.
Fleetwood, of course, is the local hero in this neck of the woods and he was happy to offer some pointers. “He knows his way around here, that’s for sure, and there were a few tee shots and club selections where he was able to give me a bit of advice,” added Syme. “There’s a lot of strategy needed on this course and Tommy was great to chat to and it was a great opener to the Open for me.”
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Fleetwood was still in the amateur ranks himself, having won the Scottish Open Stroke-Play Championship at Murcar Links in 2009 as he underlined the potential to become a world top-20 player. “Absolutely,” replied Syme to being asked if the Englishman was an inspiration. “It’s been a steady rise, but the last year or two has been amazing and he’s really kicked on.
“My goal this year is to play the Walker Cup, which he’s been in before. We played very similar tournaments at amateur level, so it was good to get his insight into that and when the right time is to turn pro. He’s only 26, which isn’t that much older than me.”
Guiding Syme in the formative years of his career is his father Stuart. A PGA professional, he coaches Syme and has been walking round with him this week, when Syme’s preparation has also included a full practice round with 1999 winner Paul Lawrie.
Another former champion, John Daly, will be in Syme’s group when he tees off in the first round in front of a small army of fans from both Fife and Dumfries, where he grew up before the family moved back to their roots after Stuart bought Drumoig Golf Centre.
“I’ve been preparing similarly to the way I would for most amateur events,” said Syme. Obviously the crowds and the massive grandstands are different, but I’ve been trying to keep as much as I can the same.
“There have been a good few guys over the years who have done well as amateurs at the Open. It’s a special week, but I can’t think that far ahead at the minute. I’m not looking any further ahead than Thursday.”
While this, of course, will be by far the biggest test of his career, Syme can certainly take encouragement from his effort in that nerve-wracking final qualifier as he bids to emulate the likes of Barclay Howard (1997), Stuart Wilson (2004) and Lloyd Saltman (2005) by winning the coveted Silver Medal. “It’s a tough route to come through,” he said of a 36-hole shoot-out offering just three spots. “It gave me a lot of confidence to do it. Hopefully my experiences of playing the Australian Open and Joburg Open on the European Tour will help as well.” Doing well this week could help Syme secure a spot in the 10-strong Great Britain & Ireland side for that aforementioned Walker Cup in Los Angeles in September. Another chance to stake his claim for that will come in the US Amateur next month, with Syme playing in that through his world ranking instead of the Scottish Amateur Championship at Prestwick.
It had seemed as though he would be staying amateur for one more full season, but that now seems up in the air, with this event having the possibility to be career-defining.
“It might be,” he replied to being asked if this could now be his last year before turning pro. “I’ll go to Tour School at the end of the year as an amateur and see how it goes. I haven’t got any definite plans. First, I just want to enjoy this week.”