Open season: Stephen Gallacher on Muirfield

IT’S a lottery, there’s no other way of looking at it,” says Stephen Gallacher of tomorrow’s Open Championship qualifying at Sunningdale.

Stephen Gallacher's season got off to a great start with a three-shot win in February in Dubai, and hes hoping his improved consistency will pay off at Sunningdale tomorrow.  Picture: Getty
Stephen Gallacher's season got off to a great start with a three-shot win in February in Dubai, and hes hoping his improved consistency will pay off at Sunningdale tomorrow.  Picture: Getty
Stephen Gallacher's season got off to a great start with a three-shot win in February in Dubai, and hes hoping his improved consistency will pay off at Sunningdale tomorrow. Picture: Getty

“You’ve got a one in nine or ten chance to claim one of those dozen spots, but it’s never occurred to me not to go – it’s difficult to explain just how desperate I am to get to Muirfield.”

As we talk, Gallacher almost drifts off. He’s thinking about Muirfield, about how much of an advantage it would be to sleep in his own bed while he plays at the Open. He doesn’t know the links particularly well, but he plays every week at the two courses which book-end next month’s Open venue, the Renaissance and Gullane No.1, so it’s virtually home conditions. If only he can get through qualifying at Sunningdale…

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That, however, is easier said than done. The field of 96 contains the last Ryder Cup skipper, Jose Maria Olazabal, and the next one, Paul McGinley, not to mention Ryder Cup footsoldiers such as Paul Casey, Thomas Levet, David Howell and Ross Fisher. There’s more, too, well-kent golfing names such as Thomas Bjorn, Raphael Jacquelin, Simon Dyson, Gregory Havret, Simon Khan and Ollie Fisher. And there’s Michael Campbell – the only man to have won the US Open and HSBC World Matchplay in the same year – and seven other Scots, including Marc Warren and David Drysdale. You know it’s tough when quality players such as Nick Dougherty, Soren Hansen and Open runner-up Niclas Fasth are on the reserve list. No wonder Colin Mongomerie skipped it in favour of his Senior Tour debut.

Yet Gallacher isn’t fazed. For a start, it’s at Sunningdale, a course he knows well and likes. It’s his uncle Bernard’s home track these days, and Stephen’s out on the course today putting in the hard yards with his cousin.

“I need to get a feel for the place again because I’ve missed out by fractions there before and there are a couple of holes that you need to know how to play properly, so I’ll take some advice and get a local caddie for the greens,” he says. “It’s a brilliant course, a phenomenal course. They’ve dropped it down to a par 70 now and it’s just a great track, probably one of the top ten in Britain. It’s just a traditional, old-fashioned course that’s never been touched. It’s short, but I’ll tell you, you need to hit it straight and you need to putt well.”

Ah, the putting, his Achilles’ heel. Gallacher is the mirror image of his uncle, who was distinctly average off the tee and with long irons, but had a genius short game. Gallacher, by contrast, is one of the most beautiful strikers of a ball you will ever see, so much so that the first time a gobsmacked Ernie Els watched him on the range he couldn’t believe Gallacher hadn’t won more often. And then he saw him putt and understood.

Yet Gallacher has been remodelling his swing, partly to take account of the effect of injuries, partly to counteract the weak putting stats which have always held him back. “There’s this perception that my putting isn’t that hot, but that’s more to do with how far you hit the ball from the hole,” he said. “I’ve been working really hard on my game – I’ve changed to a different iron and I’ve got a new ball – to try to straighten my ball flight out and, when you hit the ball higher and straighter, it drops more vertically and you hit it closer to the pin.

“If you keep hitting it to 30 or 40 feet, nobody’s going to putt well, but if you hit it inside 20 feet you’re going to hole your share. I’ve always hit a lot of greens [in regulation] but my putting stats haven’t been good because I was hitting it to the back of greens and the front of greens rather than to within three or four yards – that’s when you’ve got a brilliant chance of scoring.”

Gallacher’s regime is working. Aged 38, this year has been an Indian summer for him and he’s feeling chipper. It started with a three-shot win in Dubai, his first Tour win since the 2005 Dunhill Links Championship 201 tournaments and eight years beforehand. He looked like he’d almost messed it up too, throwing in successive bogeys on the final round but then nailing it with an eagle on the 16th, although Gallacher says that he was hitting the ball so well that the outcome was never in doubt.

He’s more consistent this year, and now feels that if he can get in front he has enough confidence to play aggressively and close out the win. However, he’s 22nd on the order of merit with ¤537,871, well outside automatic qualification for the Open. It could have been different if injury hadn’t intervened again, a pair of facet joints in his back locking up and causing excruciating nerve-related pain when he had played too much, causing him to miss four tournaments. At least he has learned the lesson from when he contracted an immune disease and tried to come back too early and ended up being out for 18 months.

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Still, every cloud has a silver lining and it was while he was out and wondering if he would ever play again that Gallacher put in place his golf foundation for promising young golfers in the Lothians and Borders. It operates on the same basis as that of his evergreen Aberdonian pal Paul Lawrie’s and is shaping up to be equally successful, something which gives family man Gallacher enormous satisfaction.

For the moment, though, he’s not thinking about development but about achievement. Gallacher is placing a lot of emphasis on being steady enough to qualify at Sunningdale. It is, he says, the kick-start he needs. It would propel him towards the Scottish Open, the Open Championship and then, just possibly, a shot at the Ryder Cup.

“Qualifying would set me up perfectly for the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart for a tournament that’s like the fifth major for Scottish players, and then a week later it’d be off to Muirfield – two amazing courses, two incredible tournaments,” he said. “I’m trying not to even think about the Ryder Cup because to get in you’re going to have to make probably ¤1.8 to ¤2 million [in prize money] and the most I’ve ever done is ¤1 million, so I’ve really got to up my game. But if ever there was a time…”

So how does he see tomorrow panning out? He remains highly hopeful, but dreads missing out and having to rely on winning the Scottish Open to gain entry to Muirfield. “If I don’t make it [to the Open] then there are two things that are for sure, which is that I won’t be there and I won’t be sitting in my sitting room in Linlithgow watching it on my telly – I’d be up the road in Aviemore, out walking in the middle of nowhere with no phone,” he says. “I’d have to. If I didn’t want to be playing in the biggest and the best on my own doorstep it’d be time to give up, and that’s not going to happen any time soon, not when I’ve just started enjoying myself again.”