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  • Alistair Tait

Strange Things Happen in The Amateur

Whoever takes medallist honours in the Amateur Championship at Nairn Golf Club today might just want to dampen their expectations. Winning the 36-hole qualifying doesn’t always guarantee a long run in the championship.

In fact, it sometimes leads to a hasty exit.

Local member Calum Scott, younger brother of 2019 Walker Cup player Sandy, led the field with a 4-under 67 yesterday. Seventeen-year-old Calum is carrying the weight of club expectations after Sandy, the world number seven and highest ranked player due to play in this year’s championship, was forced to withdraw because of the recurring wrist injury that has hampered his season, including missing his second Walker Cup appearance.

Just eight players broke par yesterday in what were tricky conditions on the course by the Moray Firth. As a I write, 5-over is the qualifying mark, a number that could move higher as the day progresses, depending on the weather.

With the R&A moving to a card countback this year to determine the 64 and ties for the match play stages, there is only one bottom line for everyone concerned: just get into the knockout stages. After all anything can happen in 18-hole match play, and probably will.

European Tour winners Nick Dougherty, Simon Dyson, Richard Finch and Stephen Gallacher can attest to that old golf maxim: all took medallist honours in The Amateur and lost in their opening matches.

Dougherty was the golden boy of the 2001 championship at Prestwick. He was England’s future star. He lived up to that billing when he set a new qualifying 36-hole tally with a score of 135 after rounds of 66 and 69 at Prestwick and Barassie. The future three-time European Tour winner took the number one seed by three shots only to lose at the 20th hole to countryman Stuart Davis.

Not even Dougherty was surprised at his early exit. He was part of seven-year stretch that saw players who either topped or shared medallist honours lose their opening match. Dyson started that run in 1999 at Royal County Down. Finch did in 2002 at Royal Porthcawl, and he holds the record for lowest qualifying score, a 61 at Pyle & Kenfig that year.

Gallacher raised Scottish hopes the last time the Amateur was held at Nairn. He topped 36-hole qualifying in 1994 by four shots but lost at the 20th to England’s Matthew Blackey.

Indeed, since 36-hole qualifying was introduced in 1983, 18 players who either shared or won stroke play qualifying outright have crashed out in their opening match. It happened last year at Royal Birkdale. Scotland’s Ruben Lindsay was leading qualifier by a shot but lost to Finland’s Ilari Saulo in his opening head to head contest.

Two years ago, Denmark’s Jon Axelsen finished joint number one with England’s Thomas Plumb but was on his way back to Copenhagen after losing his first match. Plumb only lasted a round longer.

Only three players have topped the qualifying and gone on to win the championship. Welshman Philip Parkin did it in 1983, the first year stroke play qualifying was introduced. England’s Warren Bladon achieved the feat at Turnberry in 1996. Matteo Manassero (pictured) was leading qualifier at Formby in 2009 when he became the tournament’s youngest winner at age 17.

Incidentally, Bladon is back in this year’s field at Nairn. He returned a 74 yesterday to give himself an excellent chance of making the match play rounds. Now 55, Bladon is bidding to defeat the Honourable Michael Scott in an age countback to become the oldest winner. Scot, brother of three-time Women’s Amateur champion Lady Margaret Scott (1893-1895), was 55 and a grandfather when he won the 1933 championship at Royal Liverpool.

If Bladon can somehow take the title, he would set a record for most years, 25, between victories. John Ball went 24 years between winning the first of his eight titles in 1888 and his last in 1912.

As Dougherty and company can attest, strange things can and do happen in the Amateur Championship.

#JustSaying: “I held a notion that I could make a pretty fair appraisal of the worth of an opponent simply by speaking to him on the first tee and taking a good look into his eyes.” Bobby Jones

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