Martin Dempster: Muirfield loses flavour in LFQ move

Steve Elkington played in a local qualifier for the Open at Dunbar 11 years ago. Picture: Paul Dodds
Steve Elkington played in a local qualifier for the Open at Dunbar 11 years ago. Picture: Paul Dodds
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ASK many golfing enthusiasts in and around Edinburgh what one of their favourite memories of 15 previous Open Championships being staged at Muirfield is and there’s a good chance the answer will have something to do with the qualifying events for the world’s oldest major.

In 1992 at North Berwick, for example, the hopefuls in Local Final Qualifying over the town’s West Links included Ben Crenshaw, who found himself joining the scramble due to the fact he didn’t gain an exemption in the years between his two Masters triumphs, and a fresh-faced kid straight out of college by the name of Phil Mickelson.

The latter had to pre-qualify on that occasion after relinquishing his exemption spot as the US Amateur champion by turning professional and, though both Mickelson and Crenshaw failed to secure spots in that year’s Claret Jug contest, it was a thrill for the locals, nevertheless, to have them treading the fairways.

It was the same 11 years ago, when Dunbar, Gullane, Luffness New and North Berwick were the “last chance saloons” in the battle to earn coveted places at Muirfield, where Australian Steve Elkington was among those to progress from the first of those qualifying venues and went on to make the four-man play-off won by Ernie Els.

Luke Donald was also among those to qualify at Dunbar that year, as was Esteban Toledo, who has just earned a place in the record books by becoming the first Mexican to win on the Champions Tour, while those to miss out there included two players who have since become major winners, Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen.

Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel, two others to do likewise, were also in the LFQ line-up in 2002, the former making it through at North Berwick but the latter missing out at Gullane, where local lad Raymond Russell passed the test on his own doorstep.

Andrew Coltart, now a local lad himself after setting up home in Aberlady, shared top spot at Luffness New – thanks mainly to a stunning 61 in the first round – where the casualties included Ian Poulter, American pair Jay Haas and Mark Brooks and Australian Brett Rumford, European Tour’s man of the moment just now after back-to-back wins.

In short, each of those four events was a fantastic appetiser for the Open Championship itself, the fact they gave fans the chance to get close to players like Crenshaw, Mickelson and Elkington rather than watching them from the other side of a rope merely adding to the appeal.

Sadly, that appeal is unlikely to be the same this year as the qualifying landscape for the season’s third major has changed considerably in the intervening 11 years and, almost criminally in my opinion, is about to undergo a significant alteration at the LFQ stage next year.

Instead of courses close to the Open venue, it will be staged from 2014 onwards at four points throughout Britain, with Glasgow Gailes having been chosen along with Hillside, Royal Cinque Ports and Woburn as the initial locations.

The R&A claim this will offer a “more geographically convenient way for competitors seeking to achieve a starting place in the Open Championship” and that may well be correct, but it won’t get the juices flowing in places like East Lothian when the event returns for its next visit.

In 2002, 27 players earned spots at Muirfield through LFQ; this time around the figure will be half that. The introduction in 2004 of International Final Qualifiers – five of them – has been responsible for the dramatic reduction.

These events, held in Asia, Africa, Australasia, America and Europe in a bid to increase the Open Championship’s worldwide appeal, will also be the reason LFQ fields at Dunbar, Gullane, Musselburgh and North Berwick on 2 July will be significantly diluted in comparison to previous years.

Players only get one throw of the dice in the qualifying process – unless, of course, they earn an exemption through another route – and by the time it gets round to LFQ these days there are few household names among the hopefuls.

Despite that, the four events in East Lothian in a few weeks’ time – the Regional Qualifier at Bruntsfield Links on 24 June, too – will, in fairness, still generate a level of intrigue and excitement.

It will certainly have heartened those club professionals and amateurs about to fork out the £140 entry fee that the R&A had them in mind when it trimmed the exemption list for Muirfield from events like the Scottish Open and French Open instead of the LFQs.

“What we didn’t want to do was cut back the number of spots available at Local Final Qualifying,” insisted chief executive Peter Dawson. “If we’d done that, I think we would have let down the thousands of people who enter the championship.”

Hear, hear, though I can’t help feeling some of them have already been let down by a sea of change.

There’s nothing like a bit of fresh air at Muirfield

THE jungle drums are certainly working as well as they ever did in East Lothian, as I discovered to my profound embarrassment in last week’s media day for the Open Championship’s return to Muirfield this summer.

Having rushed on to the tee without a single practice swing or putt, I missed the ball completely, wishing the ground could have swallowed me up as I tried to come to terms with a first fresh air shot for as long as I care to remember (honest!).

“We’ll be reading about that in the paper tomorrow, then?” commented the starter, who didn’t – but seemed to do a decent job himself spreading the news.

The following day, chasing a story about Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez paying a visit to East Lothian to indulge in his passion for golf, I phoned Martyn Huish, the professional at North Berwick.

“Tell me about your fresh air shot at Muirfield then,” he said before I’d even had the chance to get round to famous football players and, for a second or two, I almost forgot what I’d phoned him about in the first place.

Of all the places to suffer one of your most embarrassing moments with a golf club in your hand, it had to be on your own doorstep at an Open Championship venue, though I’m not alone in the golf writing fraternity in that respect.

Three years ago, at the same event for the Open at St Andrews, a colleague put his opening drive out of bounds on the right of the first fairway then, over-compensating after re-loading, sent the next one OB on the left of the 18th.