Adam Scott made it look easy. The brilliant young Australian pro
turned up at Renfrew, Scotland, three Mondays ago, looking like
a million bucks and swatting 350-yard drives as easily as he
might lick a stamp. Scott shot 65 in British Open regional
qualifying and advanced to a two-round competition at Leven
Links, in Fifeshire, where last week he shot nine under par
before a gallery of children, dog walkers, pipe smokers and
bicyclists. Scott beat 52-to-1 odds to, as they say in Britain,
go through to St. Andrews.
Robert Huxtable made it look hard. The 35-year-old Asian tour
veteran from Palm Springs, Calif.--exempt from regional
qualifying but still braving 11-to-1 odds and a travel bill of
about $5,000--went twice around Leven Links in four-under 138,
impressing his Scottish caddie but failing to go through. "He's
a gent, an absolute gent," said the caddie, Neil Ogston of St.
Andrews. "A good player, too. He should have scored much lower,
but he missed a lot of putts."
Fred Sutton made it look impossible. The 26-year-old mini-tour
pro from Victorville, Calif., surfed the Internet to select a
regional qualifying site--he chose Burnham-on-Sea, a brown-water
resort village south of Bristol, England--and then flew from Los
Angeles on a frequent-flier ticket, arriving in London less than
72 hours before his 8 a.m. tee time. Sutton's drive on the 1st
hole of the Burnham & Berrow Golf Club, into a 40-mph wind, fell
like a wounded puffin after 190 yards. He went on to encounter
horizontal rain, blowing sand, knee-high rough and wild-eyed
spectators wrestling with tattered umbrellas. "I wanted to
experience links golf," Sutton said after shooting an 86, his
highest score as a pro. "I had no idea."
That's British Open qualifying for you. Roughly three fourths of
the 156 players who teed it up last week at St. Andrews got into
the field through one of the 28 categories of exemptions. Any
other golfer wanting to play in the millennial Open had to show
proof that he was either a member of a recognized tournament
pro's organization or, if an amateur, had a handicap of scratch
or better; pay an entry fee of $137; and bring his A game to one
or, in most cases, two qualifying tournaments. This year 2,290
golfers played at 21 regional and final qualifying sites to fill
44 positions in the Open field.
July 30, 2000
Sutton, not knowing any better, asked to play in Somerset, a
county famous for clotted cream and deer stalking. "We're
probably the least popular qualifying site," said Mark
Crowther-Smith, head pro at Burnham & Berrow. "We're on an
estuary, and sometimes the wind howls." The 380-yard 1st hole,
for instance, has been driven, "but you can't sniff it with two
woods when the wind comes up," said Crowther-Smith.
Sure enough, squalls from off the Bristol Channel pummeled
Burnham & Barrow on July 10, the day of regional qualifying. On
the practice range the long hitters watched in dismay as their
drives gathered like a milk mustache just beyond the 175-yard
sign. It was even worse out on the dunes. Lee Corfield, a young
amateur who had recently shot 64 on the course, had an 89 and
reported that his threesome took 27 shots at the par-4 16th--a
13, a 10 and a four. "The conditions were horrendous," said
David Dixon, a Walker Cup candidate and the current Lytham
Trophy holder. He walked off with a 79. "Really horrendous,"
echoed European tour irregular David Ray, who also shot 79.
"I've been beaten up badly."
Crowther-Smith smiled wanly upon hearing that several players
couldn't reach the fairway on the 6th hole. "With the benefit of
hindsight," he said, "we could have moved the tees up a bit."
This being England, they could have moved the teas up a bit as
well. There was a Frenchman, an Australian, a Zimbabwean and a
Swede at Burnham & Berrow; otherwise the field was veddy
British, hailing from Wodehousean locales such as Chipping
Norton, Broome Manor and Puckrup Hall, Lyme Regis and Frilford
Heath, Pontypool and Coed-y-Mwstwr, Wales. Sutton's caddie,
17-year-old Californian Johann Emanuel, looked at the photos of
Victorian and Edwardian golfers on the clubhouse walls and said,
"This course is older than some of our states!"
On this day, unfortunately for Sutton, the qualifier turned into
the Mother Nature Invitational. The best score of the morning
was 79, by Michael O'Connor and left-hander Stuart Little, a
Gloucester pro regarded as the best player in southwest England.
There were many scores in the upper 80s and 90s and 18 N/Rs--for
card not returned, the British equivalent of withdrew. "The guys
behind us all walked off," said Sutton.
In the afternoon the scores descended about an octave, in tune
with the pitch of the wind. Alun Evans of Garnant Park earned
the $600 first prize with a 74, and 10 other players went
through with scores of 79 or better. Little, whose 79 in the
morning was the equivalent of a fair-weather 65, failed to win
an assured spot. He did, however, get an alternate's slot in a
nine-player playoff at day's end, when the sun made a brief,
dramatic appearance on the horizon. At 16 other qualifying
courses, including sites in Scotland and Ireland, 222 more long
shots advanced to final qualifying.
Final qualifying: If you make it through a regional, that's
where they send you to have your dreams shattered. You report to
one of four sites--this year all four courses were less than an
hour's drive from St. Andrews--and find that the fields have
been freshened with established touring pros. This year you
faced the likes of Glen Day, Brad Faxon and Duffy Waldorf of the
PGA Tour; international stars like Anders Forsbrand, Eduardo
Romero and Mats Lanner; and eight former Ryder Cuppers. If you
played at Ladybank, you ran into Costantino Rocca, who took John
Daly to a playoff the last time the Open was played at St.
Andrews, in '95. If you tried to qualify at Scotscraig, you had
to contend with Sam Torrance, Europe's Ryder Cup captain.
Granted, some of the big names were past their primes. Mike
Reid, 46, warming up at Leven Links with Mark McNulty, 46, and
Mark McCumber, 48, quipped, "We should charge the crowd 50 pence
apiece to see this wax museum." But no one sneers at the field
in a final qualifier. Last year the finals produced the Open
champ, Paul Lawrie, and the runner-up, Jean Van de Velde. The
year before, teenager Justin Rose started as an unknown in the
finals and wound up famous when he tied for fourth at Royal
Many entrants feel they don't need to qualify to feel like
winners; the experience is enough. "This is real golf," Reid
said after shooting a first-round 67 at Leven Links, a quaint
layout on the Fife shore of the Firth of Forth. "It's not
American-style, point-A-to-point-B golf where you get your nose
out of joint if you get a bad bounce." With Reid was his
13-year-old son, Daniel, who caddied for his dad in the
qualifier. When they toured the course in a practice round,
members of the Leven Golfing Society and the Leven Thistle Golf
Club followed them for 18 holes, providing useful local
knowledge. "That just shows their reverence for the game," said
Reid. "Some American players think it's an inconvenience to come
here. But these people! This golf course!"
Just as sold on the experience was Huxtable, the pro from Palm
Springs. Asked why he had flown halfway around the world and
drained $5,000 from his bank account to play in front of four
teenagers, a granny and a springer spaniel, the former Ohio
State golfer said, "Because the Open is at St. Andrews and it's
the year 2000." As for the common American complaint that a room
for a week at the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews costs $6,830,
Huxtable laughed and said that it cost considerably less at his
hotel 20 miles to the northwest in Dundee, where he was staying
with 24 other Asian tour players. "I asked my friend John Cook
how much it cost to come over here, and he said $20,000. I said,
'Maybe the way you live it's $20,000!'"
Huxtable and Reid played well at Leven Links, both shooting
four-under-par 138. Old man McNulty, however, waxed the field
with a stunning 62-65-127. The conditions were so benign that it
took 135 to get into a nine-man playoff for the 10th and 11th
spots and the one alternate's slot. The last two players on the
course were McCumber, a balding American tour veteran with an
affection for British golf, and Roger Wessels, a balding South
African with a stooped setup and a lot of character.
Wessels would have qualified easily but for four first-round
penalty shots, which he assessed himself when he discovered in
mid-round that he had switched to a ball of a different
compression. Even with the penalties, he appeared on Monday to
have secured the 11th and final spot on the third playoff hole,
only to miss a four-foot birdie putt. Wessels finally outlasted
McCumber, who three-putted from 60 feet on the fifth playoff
hole, but as an alternate Wessels was unlikely to play in the
Open. (He didn't.) Devastated, he walked off the course in a
gathering gloom, a friend's arm over his shoulder.
That's the Open--it breaks hearts and lifts spirits with total
disregard for anyone's feelings. Scott, who sailed through both
stages of qualifying, ran aground at St. Andrews and missed the
cut. Little, the left-hander who limped away from Burnham &
Berrow as an alternate, made the field at Ladybank when Sweden's
Patrik Sjoland pulled out. Little then shot 70-67 to qualify for
the Open (elation!), where he went 79-72 and missed the cut
(deflation!). Then you had the inspiring example of Lionel
Alexandre of France. Alexandre qualified in ninth place at
Camberley Heath, reached the Open field from Ladybank by
surviving a seven-hole playoff and played all four rounds at St.
Andrews, finishing 72nd. (Tiger Woods won the claret jug, but
Alexandre placed first in number of holes played, with 133.) In
the end, 10 of the players who started the week in outer Fife
made the cut at St. Andrews, including McNulty, Romero and
Scotland's own Gordon Brand Jr. The best finisher was Sweden's
Pierre Fulke, who tied for seventh.
Fred Sutton? The California pro, last seen drying off at Burnham
& Berrow, showed up for the first round at St. Andrews after
making a detour to Paris to catch the fireworks on Bastille Day.
He stood a few yards from the 1st tee, marveling over the blue
sky and a breeze as soft as cat fur. "Why?" Sutton asked with a
sardonic laugh. "Why wasn't it like this for me?"
Fluttering from a string attached to his belt was Sutton's
consolation prize, awarded to every golfer who played in
regional qualifying: a one-day spectator's pass.
"Some American players think it's an inconvenience to come
here," says Reid. "But these people! This golf course!"