I found myself at Renfrew thanks mainly to Ron Smartt, the operator of a Glasgow-Dublin-based golf-tour outfit, who figured that arranging for a Yank journalist to attempt to qualify for the Open might be a creative marketing ploy. He had contacted me through a mutual friend, pointing out that regardless of my performance I'd surely be able to mine a story out of the experience and mention his company (Travelling the Fairways, 800-414-8519) in the process. So Smartt was no dummy in that respect.
But I could have entered without his help. The format for British Open qualifying is much the same as it is for the U.S. Open. Only players with handicaps of scratch or lower are eligible. The entry fee is a modest ninety-five pounds, or about $150, paid to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, whose rules govern the competition.
Although the strict mathematics of British Open qualifying seem to slim the chances of every entrant, the odds are still significantly better than they are in the U.S. Open. Last year, more than eight thousand golfers entered ninety-six local and twelve sectional qualifiers for our national championship, vying for ninety available spots in the 156-man field. By contrast, some 2,339 players entered British Open qualifying to compete for forty-four available spots in the 156-man field. (The remaining 112 spots are reserved for players who have earned spots in the Open due to their performances in past Opens and other special criteria.)
The first stage of qualifying consists of eighteen-hole "regional" events held at sixteen or so courses in England, Scotland and Ireland; roughly ten percent of the field advances from each site. Those players are joined in "final" qualifying by three hundred or so players who are exempted from the regional round; this thirty-six hole stage is held at four courses located nearby the actual Open tournament course. Ultimately, fewer than a dozen players advance from each of these sites to the main event.
Having once won a mini-tour event in Florida, I probably wasn't the least likely entrant in the field. But as fate would have it, my personal odds of qualifying were jeopardized by a nagging back injury aggravated on the long plane ride over the pond, and by the dastardly luck of the draw. The starting time for my threesome was 2:05 p.m. I had the dubious distinction of being the very last player to tee off in the very last group. To make matters worse, one member of my scheduled pairing canceled out, which meant that I would be playing in a twosome behind forty-one other groups competing for just twelve available qualifying spots (plus one reserve). It promised to be a very long day.
The one ace I had up my sleeve was the caddie that Smartt had recruited from the membership at Renfrew. His name was Kenny McIntyre, a slim, bespectacled twenty-six-year-old former club champion who bore more than a passing resemblance to the fictional schoolboy sorcerer Harry Potter. Keenly appreciating my predicament, Kenny did his best to loosen me up with his single-malt wit. "I'd be willing to call it a victory," he declared as he watched me hit balls on the driving range down the road, "if you go round without hurting yourself any more than you have already."
Shortly Before Two O'Clock, Kenny and I trudged over to the starter's tent, where we were greeted by one John Peace, an elfin, bald-headed man who also happened to be a Renfrew member. Peace was decked out in green tartan kilts with a silver flask called a sporran hanging from his belt and a knife called a skien dhu tucked in one of his knee socks.