Martin Dempster: Open qualifying fairer by far

THE person who started tinkering with the Open Championship qualifying system a few years back has either left the magnificent building behind the first tee on the Old Course or swallowed their pride.

The route to the Claret Jug, won by Phil Mickelson last year, has been made fairer by changes. Picture: Gordon Fraser
The route to the Claret Jug, won by Phil Mickelson last year, has been made fairer by changes. Picture: Gordon Fraser

As Peter Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive, is well aware, this correspondent has been a fierce critic of changes made to the annual scramble for places in the world’s oldest major.

Indeed, even though trying to cover four separate events on the same day has provided two logistical nightmares for me personally in the past four years, I’ve still to be convinced that scrapping the traditional local final qualifying system in 2014 for a regional one is a good move going forward.

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Credit where credit is due, though, and there’s no doubt that changes announced yesterday by the St Andrews-based organisation to the wider qualifying process for next year’s event at Royal Liverpool should be applauded.

Gone, thankfully, are the dreaded International Final Qualifiers. Well, almost anyway. These are no longer being held in Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom or the United States. Only Thailand will stage such an event next year, when four spots will be on offer.

These two-round sprints were awful in every respect. The identities of qualifiers from the early-season events in Australia, South Africa and Asia had long been forgotten by the time the Claret Jug joust came around. They also restricted players as far as routes into The Open were concerned.

The UK one, held at Sunningdale, required a mad rush back from Munich for European Tour players – at least the US Open one at Walton Heath is the day after the conclusion of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth – and even more of a headache for Challenge Tour players.

This year, for instance, American Brooks Koepka almost had to run on to the first tee for his opening round after a journey down from Aviemore had been delayed by the Scottish Hydro Challenge being hit by bad weather.

It might not have done Koepka any harm as he emerged as the leading qualifier, but that’s not the point.

Which is why it is heartening to see a new system that involves 28 out of 44 places up for grabs through qualifying coming via 72-hole tournaments that are part of the European Tour, the PGA Tour, Australian Tour or the Japan Tour.

In Europe, the three events immediately prior to the Open Championship – in reverse order the Scottish Open, French Open and Irish Open – will all offer three places, which, on each occasion, will go to the leading three players (not otherwise exempt) who finish in the top ten and ties.

The same number of spots will be available in the Australian Open and the South African Open, while four have been allocated to three other events – the Mizuno Open in Japan and the AT&T National and Greenbrier Classic, both on the PGA Tour, where the John Deere Classic, with one again, completes that total of 28.

Having been reduced to just one spot as well this year, the Scottish Open is one of the big winners in this announcement. It means the event’s first visit to Royal Aberdeen has been handed another boost on the back of Rory McIlroy having already confirmed his presence in the field.

Golf has become riddled with instances of selfishness, but this is bucking that trend. The R&A is still making its flagship event accessible to players from around the world. It’s achieving that now, though, in a way that is more convenient to the players in terms of their scheduling. Fairer to them, too, in events played over 72 holes.

At the same time, European Tour chief executive George O’Grady and his PGA Tour counterpart, Tim Finchem, have both seen some of their events had an extra bit of glitter added to them. Neither of them, therefore, would have needed much encouraging to be quoted in the R&A’s official announcement and the same goes for three former Open champions – Paul Lawrie, Padraig Harrington and David Duval.

Lawrie and Harrington agree the changes will “strengthen” the Scottish, Irish and French Open fields. Lawrie also described places being decided over 72 holes as “fairer”, a move Duval likes, too.

The 14-event Open Qualifying Series – thank God they don’t go for the Race to Royal Liverpool – also includes the aforementioned final qualifying, which, in Scotland, will start with one of 13 regional events at Bruntsfield Links on 23 June then Glasgow Gailes stages a two-round battle on 1 July for just three spots.

The jury is out on that change but we can at least take comfort from the R&A having shown it isn’t too pig-headed to act when it’s got something wrong. Next on the agenda should be its ticket pricing for Royal Liverpool and it should be interesting in the wake of poor crowds at Muirfield in July.