When The Open was more open
Albert MacKenzie vividly remembers Final Qualifying for the 1996 Open Championship. The Saunton Golf Club professional didn’t make it into the field for Royal Lytham, but rubbing shoulders with the following year’s champion golfer of the year made up for it.
MacKenzie, a good enough player to contend in the 2011 Senior Open at Walton Heath, watched in awe as Justin Leonard walked around Fairhaven Golf Club’s practice putting green with an air of confidence the Scot had never seen.
“I remember he only used one ball, not three like the rest of us, and was holing 15 and 20 footers as if they were tap ins,” said MacKenzie, who captained the 2017 Great Britain & Ireland PGA Cup team to victory at Foxhills Golf Club. “He just oozed confidence. You knew he was going to breeze into The Open.”
Leonard did just that. He set a course record 64. He couldn’t maintain the magic at Royal Lytham, finishing T52. A year later he won at Royal Troon.
MacKenzie’s experience used to be a normal affair for club pros, mini tour players and elite amateurs. Not so much anymore.
The Open Championship, which was schedule to take place at Royal St George's this week before coronavirus wrecked our world, lost much of its romance when it changed the qualifying procedure in 2003 just before the championship at Royal St George’s. The Open became less Open, and the dreamers, club pros like MacKenzie, mini tour players, good amateurs like John Kemp, who played in two Opens, were given fewer chances to get into the championship.
In years gone by this Sunday was the Open Championship for a lot of club professionals, elite amateurs and mini tour players. This was the day when they’d tee it up alongside hardened tour pros in Final Qualifying to try to qualify for golf’s greatest tournament.
Before 2003, Final Qualifying took place on Sunday and Monday of Open Championship week. There would be four venues close to the Open venue with sometimes 16 spots from each course.
It was a thrill to watch veteran tour pros tee it up alongside the club pros, elite amateurs and other dreamers. Then the R&A invented International Final Qualifying and Local Final Qualifying and made it harder for the little guys. The governing body decreed that only 12 spots, three each from four venues, would go to Local Final Qualifying.
Needless to say, there were howls of protest at the time.
“I can’t believe the R & A are doing this.” Kemp said. “It’s ridiculous. They say they want the best international players but amateurs like me and good club pros are getting elbowed out.
“It won’t be worth guys like me entering. It just won’t be worth it because the odds are that the good tour professionals will take all three spots at each qualifying venue. I think a lot of amateurs and club professionals like me will just not bother to enter.”
Paul Anderson, The Berkshire Golf Club’s distinguished professional, spoke for many club pros when he said:
“It’s ridiculous what they have done,” Anderson said. “They’ve turned it from the most open of championships into almost a closed tournament.”
The criticism didn’t cut much ice with then R&A secretary Peter Dawson. He said:
“It is going to be very tough to get in and I accept that, but make no apology for it.”
Thankfully, a handful of names still play in Local Final Qualifying. Ian Poulter qualified to play in the 2017 Championship at Royal Birkdale by using local knowledge to qualify at Woburn, his home course. Needless to say, his presence gave the event a real buzz. However, it’s not the same. That romance of a real mix of stars with the dreamers gave every Open Championship up until 2003 a real buzz. Monday evenings of Open week were cracking days. The anticipation of who made it into the tournament was brilliant. They could be long days too. I remember covering Final Qualifying at Hillside when a playoff for the last spot finished in darkness.
I understand why the R&A changed the system. Call me nostalgic, but I miss those days. So does MacKenzie and many other club pros.