AMATEUR ace Grant Forrest will have a two-times major winner for company when he makes his Open debut in his native East Lothian on Thursday.
Watching on as the 20-year-old steps on to one of the game’s biggest stages will be American Mark O’Meara, winner of both The Masters and The Open in 1998.
Out at 12.06pm in the first round, the pair will have Australian Marcus Fraser, a two-time European Tour winner, as the third member of their group.
Forrest, who secured his place in the field by winning the Dunbar qualifier a fortnight ago, has already been out on the East Lothian course in star company this week.
Yesterday, he played a practice round with Dubai Desert Classic champion Stephen Gallacher, who is delighted for his Lothians compatriot.
“It’s brilliant for Grant,” said the Bathgate man. “I played nine holes with him and he’s a lovely player.
“It was a tough decision for him not to play last week at the Men’s European Amateur Team Championship in Denmark.
“But it’s not often The Open comes around on your own patch, with him living so near-by (in North Berwick).
“I wish him all the best. Grant not playing for the men’s side didn’t make a huge difference anyway, as the team did so well to reach the final, losing narrowly to England on Saturday.
“It shows our strength in depth when you have guys like Bradley Neil, at 17, coming in and doing so well.”
Gallacher has landed a decent draw himself in the first two rounds – with former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy and Harris English, a PGA Tour winner this year.
“It’s an amazing coincidence that I been drawn with Geoff as I’ve played with him five times and four years in a row in a major,” said the Scot.
“He’s a good mate of mine and that helps. He loves Scotland and we’ll chat away, which helps.”
Shrugging off the disappointment of missing the cut in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart last week, he added: “I played alright last week, actually.
“I was just a little tired. I’ve had extra time to get my rhythm here at Muirfield and being at home this week (in Linlithgow) helps, as I can pop up and down.”
Forrest and Gallacher are part of a ten-strong Tartan Army – Scotland’s biggest representation in the R&A’s flagship event since St Andrews in 2005.
“It’s great to see so many Scots here, it’s good for the game in this country and shows how well we’re all doing at this level,” insisted Gallacher.
“We’ve not had this many players in The Open for a number of years and it’s great for the home crowds, too.”
For its 16th staging of the event, the course is running fast, the fairways are brown and the rough is knee-high.
“I’ve never played Muirfield competitively, but I was here in 1995 for a Walker Cup warm-up and I was back again five or six years ago and it’s a great course,” said Gallacher.
“It’s got some downwind holes and others into the wind and that makes it really tough but also fair.
“I’ve played a few of the Open venues and Muirfield is a throwback to the old-style courses I remember seeing on TV watching the likes of Nicklaus, Watson and Seve – really hard and fast and dusty.
“It’s almost as if the dust creates a sort of heat haze, and after the summer we’ve had there is long, wispy grass and dried out fairways and lush greens.
“The rough looks absolutely horrendous but it’s not as punishing as it appears.
But, if you land in it, you can be out of control. You can try and muscle your way over it because it’s short in places, but the emphasis has to be on hitting the fairway.
“If you’re going to be aggressive, it has to be with your approach shot from the fairway, not off the tee.”
In his practice round yesterday, Ogilvy had West Linton’s Gareth Wright for company.
“And all I can say is wow!” declared the Edinburgh-based player. “Geoff has to be one of the nicest guys I’ve met.
“I then went to the range to catch up with Sandy Lyle and he watched me hit some shots. And this is only day two of my first Open.”
McDowell sees event as best major hope
Graeme McDowell had to watch from afar as the chaos unfolded at Muirfield in 2002, but still rates the Open Championship as his best bet for a second major title.
McDowell was just beginning his professional career that year and, having failed to qualify, was sent off to Germany to compete in a second-tier Challenge Tour event instead.
And even though that event also suffered from bad weather and was eventually reduced to 54 holes, McDowell’s second place kickstarted his pro career and two weeks later he won his first European Tour title in the Scandinavian Masters.
“I just remember that weather on the Saturday, the last time the Open was at Muirfield in 2002,” recalled McDowell of the rain and wind that sent the Grand Slam-chasing Tiger Woods crashing to an 81 and Colin Montgomerie to an 84. “I remember where I was, I was in Germany playing my first-ever Challenge Tour event.
Eight years later McDowell would win his first major title in the US Open at Pebble Beach and the 33-year-old is now targeting more glory at Muirfield “I think the Open is the one I am most likely to win,” the Northern Irishman added.