England's Mark Young drives a ball from the fifth tee during a practice round at the British Open Golf Championship at the Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland, Wednesday, July 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Alastair Grant
July 15, 2015

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) Spectators lining the fairways on a rainy morning at St. Andrews proffered autograph books, golf balls, and mini soccer balls for Mark Young to sign as he took part in his final practice round at the British Open.

With a look of part delight, part bemusement, Young obliged.

''I've signed thousands already this week,'' Young said on Wednesday, before chuckling to himself. ''Thing is, people don't even know who I am. It's bonkers.''

This 33-year-old Englishman still can't quite believe he's wound up at the home of golf.

For 12 years, Young worked in a factory as a home renovator, manufacturing sun porches or, as they say in Britain, fitting conservatories. He still dips back into his old profession from time to time. In fact, he was in the factory in northwest England last week, just helping out.

Since last November, though, Young is more likely to be found on a golf course, having turned professional thanks to generous financial backing from three men at his local golf club. It felt like the right time, with his handicap falling to plus 5.2 - the lowest in England at the time.

Young plays on the satellite EuroPro Tour - the third tier of European golf - but has taken part in only two tournaments so far.

''They chucked a few quid at me and said go and give it your best shot,'' he said from under an umbrella by the side of the second fairway on the Old Course.

''I thought, it's now or never. Let's have a crack at this thing. And I've found myself here. It's a dream really.''

Young was one of 12 players who came through final qualifying last month, shooting rounds of 68 and 70 to win at Gailes Links in Scotland and reach his first British Open.

On Sunday, Young played a few holes with Louis Oosthuizen, the last player to lift the claret jug at St. Andrews in 2010. On Tuesday, he went round with 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, who gave his novice playing partner advice on which line to take on drives and approach shots.

''Rose was a proper gentleman,'' Young said. ''He said, `Just be yourself, we are all human beings here.'''

On Wednesday, Young was given his first real taste of what to expect from Thursday, when the tournament begins, as huge crowds followed his practice group that included top-10 players Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.

Young is lucky to attract a ''crowd'' of double figures during his rounds on the EuroPro Tour. He said it was a bizarre experience.

''I was more in awe this morning, watching that caliber of player,'' said Young, who has played the Old Course as an amateur. ''I was watching them rather than focusing on what I was doing. Didn't play the best today but I'll get better.''

Young's family and friends were in the crowd. As he approached his second shot at No. 16, he stopped for photos with some pals. Walking just behind him was the captain from his golf club, fulfilling a bet by wearing a Liverpool soccer jersey despite being a staunch fan of rival local club Everton.

''He sent me a text before final qualifying, saying if you qualify I'll walk around in a Liverpool shirt for you,'' Young said. ''We've made him wear it. It's been all over the TV. Boy, he's had some stick for it.''

Young, who is a former semi-professional soccer player, is hoping to play four rounds this week, get a decent finish, earn some invitations to events on the second-tier Challenge Tour and advance to the big time. He has earned only 1,427 pounds ($2,230) from golf this season, but he doesn't want to go back to working in factories.

''I've had texts and Facebook messages wishing me good luck and asking me when I'm coming in again,'' Young said. ''I said hopefully never again.''

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