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  • Alistair Tait

Amateur Championship has no respect for card game

Avoiding Nick Dougherty’s fate will be a key goal for whoever tops today’s qualifying for the Amateur Championship at Royal Birkdale. Taking the number one seed isn’t always the key to lifting the trophy.

It can be a bit of curse. Indeed where players rank in stroke play makes little difference providing they make it through to the head-to-head matches.

With the first round washed out because of the great British summer, only 18 holes are needed to determine the 64 and ties who go through to the match play stages which begin tomorrow. The same goes for the Women’s Amateur at nearby West Lancs.

Dougherty topped 36-hole qualifying in 2001 at Prestwick and Kilmarnock Barassie. Rounds of 66 and 69 respectively helped him set a then record low in 36-hole qualifying of 135. He took the number one seed by three shots. The ebullient Englishman was, well, ebullient about his chances of going all the way. He lost his first-round match to fellow Englishman Stuart Davis at the 20th hole.

The current Sky Sports Golf presenter isn’t the only European Tour winner to fall at the first hurdle after entering the knockout stages as number one seed. Stephen Gallacher (1994), Simon Dyson (1999) and Richard Finch (2002) all lost in their opening matches after winning 36-hole qualifying.

The noughties were particularly cruel to those with the temerity to play the best in 36 holes of stroke play. For seven straight years from 1999, the 36-hole leader or another who tied for the 36-hole lead, went out in their opening match. In fact, nearly half of all those who have finished outright medallist or joint medallist have lost their first match since stroke play qualifying began in 1983.

England’s Thomas Plumb (pictured) avoided that fate at Portmarnock last year. The Walker Cup player won his opening match but lost in the next round. Unfortunately, the curse clobbered Denmark’s Jon Axelsen. He shared the top of the 36-hole qualifying leaderboard with Plumb and then promptly lost his opening match.

Plumb is vying with Welshman Philip Parkin and American Dana Banke to become the third player to top the qualifiers for the second straight year. Parkin did it in that inaugural year of 1983, and backed it up in 1984. Banke was leading qualifier in 1985 and 1986. He made it to the third round in 1985 before losing to compatriot Duffy Waldorf. He lost his opening match in 1986 to Scotland’s Lee Vannet at the first extra hole.

Parkin has another Amateur Championship accolade to his name. He’s one of only three players to lead the 36-hole qualifying and go on to win the title. Parkin defeated American Jim Holtgrieve 5&4 at Turnberry in 1983. Holtgrieve remained a career amateur and captained the U.S. Walker Cup team in 2011 and 2013. Parkin is another of those players who slot neatly into the whatever happened to category. (Good question.) He joined the professional ranks amid much hype, but never came close to fulfilling that hype.

Warren Bladon was leading qualifier in 1996, also at Turnberry. He, too, never made the grade as a professional. Maybe it’s a Turnberry thing. Dutchman Reinier Saxton defeated Tommy Fleetwood there in 2008. Fleetwood’s exploits don't need illustrating. Saxton’s can be written on a small post it note.

So Plumb and others shouldn’t worry too much about finishing number one seed. The Amateur Championship has no respect for the card game. Just getting into the match play rounds is the simple requirement. After that it’s down to anything can happen in 18-hole match play and probably will.

Anyone who makes the match play rounds should take heart from past champions Stephen Dodd (1989), Craig Watson (1997) and Graeme Storm (1999). Not many would have backed that trio when they snuck into the match play rounds bang on the cut line. Yet all three ended up with the trophy and spots in the Open Championship and the Masters.

Funny old game.

#JustSaying: “Stroke play is a better test of golf, but match play is a better test of character.” Joe Carr

Photograph courtesy of the R&A

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