Talk us through the climax of the qualifying process at Southport & Ainsdale.
After playing solidly all day and striking my irons great, I was in the clubhouse at 6 under, with an agonising wait for nearly 2 hours while a play-off loomed. Having my number 1 fan Archie there was great, he kept my mind distracted. I was also able to go through my full warm-up process for the play-off which was really helpful. I came out of the hat first and being a par 3, I was able put the pressure on with a solid 215 yard 5 iron to 10ft. With 2 out 3 going through, just one competitor missing the green was enough for me to have 2 putts uphill from 10ft to make it to The Open.
Have you managed to get the time off from work to play in The Open?
The company I work for have been really flexible with me, if I need to be at a tournament, I’m there, no question. Having a part-time job this year has allowed me to carry on with my dream, having had some mixed results and with the challenges of retaining sponsors in difficult economic times. It’s given me a little more stability, but obviously less time to practise, so the effect has balanced itself out. Right now, stability is what I am craving and I hope that the outcome of playing at The Open could help with some of that. I’ve literally just agreed two new sponsorship deals to help to the end of the season, that’s something that just wouldn’t have happened if I had not qualified for the Open. I gave myself a small window to get these things resolved after which I just need to keep focused on the task in hand.
What keeps you going? Is it belief or addiction?
It’s a bit of both, the balance of power keeps shifting between the two. I know I have put myself and my family through a lot to keep the dream alive and I hope that a good performance in The Open can go some way to helping people understand the sacrifices and decisions that I have made. I had struggled for momentum over the last year or so since my EuroPro win, but I could feel I was close. You just know the difference between when you are playing well but scoring rubbish and when you are just playing rubbish. So I had the belief. I feel really good ahead of The Open and the belief is certainly still there.
How are preparations going now that you have qualified? How are your preparations different for this tournament? Will you keep the same caddy that you had during qualifying?
For me my game is all about process, process, process, so I try to be as consistent as possible. In a quiet moment this week, I sat down and created the blueprint for my week. It’s my intention to stick as closely to that plan as I can. I am going to spend a couple of days up at Lytham looking for my marker points off the tee for instance, really get my homework done in advance. This way if I see some of the other guys carrying bunkers at 285yds, I can ignore that and stick to my plan. It’s important that my caddy helps me to stick to it too. I’m sticking with Jason Cooper, my Caddy from qualifying. He’s a great guy, he really makes me laugh and we have so much fun on the golf course, so I’m delighted he will be on the bag with me. One of the perks of getting to the Open is that I have had some brand new equipment offered to me, it’s tempting but changing my driver at this stage is not the right preparation I need… but if I found a really great putter that felt really hot, then I may consider that!
Are there any shots that you will be practising in particular ahead of playing at Lytham?
Not really, practising at an Open venue less than a mile from my house means that my game already has links style shots at the heart of it. The important knock down irons and running chip shots are the things I practise day in, day out. The links is in the best condition I have ever seen it in and it’s also the toughest I’ve ever seen it. We could play The Open here tomorrow, so I think that has to be an advantage for me. My world ranking shows that these guys have proved themselves to be better than me so far, but put me on a links course and at the very least, the gap between us closes. In some ways being actually on home turf may have led to bigger expectations and a bigger circus, so perhaps ‘close to home’ advantage may work better for me. One thing for sure is that I need to avoid the many bunkers at Lytham, they might as well have a red stake around then, as they are 1 shot penalties. In 36 holes at S&A, I only went in once and immediately came out sideways.
Do you have a favourite hole at Hoylake?
The 11th, as if the view is not beautiful enough there, I had a hole in one with a 5 iron just after I had arrived 19 years ago. Picking the ball out of the hole with the sun setting over Hilbre is a moment I will never forget.
You’ve had some experience of the Open already, playing with Marco Ruiz in the final round as a marker at Hoylake in ’06 when there was an uneven number of players, what can you take from that experience ahead of Lytham?
It was a massive positive, I played in front of packed grandstands on the final day of the Open with friends and family watching. I’m expecting that same great feeling with people here to support me. But overall, I want to put the marker situation, as good as it was for me, to bed. I would have hated going through my life known as the guy who played as a marker. I want to play for real, I gate-crashed that day. I told myself, I’ll get in for real one day and this experience will stand me in good stead, so I will tee up knowing that I have played a round in open championship, knowing I struck the ball as well as anyone that day.
There are going to be the superstars of the world game at Lytham. Will being in their company at Hoylake in ’06 help to settle any nerves and avoid you getting star struck?
Of course it helps, but I rarely get starstruck. I have been around the game for a long time and know a lot of the guys who will be there, I’ve had lots of phone calls from guys on the tour over at the French Open telling me that everyone who knows me are really excited and are like ‘we knew you could get your game together, what took you so long’. I have to say though, one time I did get starstruck was this year at Walton Heath for Regional Qualifying for the US Open. I had won in Lake Jovita in Florida to get to the final round, I was surprised to see the quality of the field and if I’m honest I let it get to me a little after sharing a buggy with Ross Fisher. I guess I had been out of that environment for too long, I’d pretty much given up on tournament golf over the previous winter, I’ve learnt from that. Actually, I have a great opportunity to practise with the Fedex Cup Champion Bill Haas ahead of the Open on home turf, so I think that will help to normalise the situation.
So who would you like to play with when you get to the Open?
Obviously, whoever is in the final group on the Sunday! Let’s dream and say I’m in contention. Whilst playing with Tiger would be an amazing experience, playing with top players who I also class as friends such as Simon Dyson & Jamie Donaldson, in a group behind Tiger, would probably be statistically better for my scoring. I’m realistic that with a seeded draw, I’m not going to be with a superstar, but sometimes playing links golf at the very end of day, for example, could be an opportunity to get the best of the conditions. I could help me to slip under the radar, plus the crowds will have thinned and most of the people out with me will be my friends and family.
When you saw the support for you once you qualified how did it make you feel? The picture of you and Archie on Facebook was viewed nearly 8000 times.
I was really surprised at how many people are supporting me, it feels great and I think it can give me a sense of home advantage at The Open. To be honest, you crave that a little, you want to show the people in your life, who have seen the choices and sacrifices that you make, what you do and what you can achieve. I’ve been a mini tour golfer all my career, it’s the loneliest sort of golf, I pull a trolley with no-one watching, you feel like you are on your own. The qualifying was like a microcosm of The Open, I felt really comfortable: I’m close to home, playing links golf and with people who are there to support me. That brings me to Archie. He’s my inspiration. I’m so pleased to have done that in front of him, I kept telling him how good I was, so I had to prove it! I always feared that he would not know what I do and I’d have to tell him I used to be a golfer and for it not to mean anything. Now he is going to remember The Open for the rest of his life, I can’t imagine how big it’s going to look to him. He loves watching me play, but he’ll be excited to meet Rory McIlroy, he’s his number 1 fan and I’ve promised him he can meet him.
Do you have any messages for your supporters and in particular the Hoylake members?
I’m really grateful. Yes, I really want to be known for being grateful. The members have been fantastic and I have to thank John Heggarty for giving me the chance 19 years ago and for everyone sticking with me through thick and thin. I’ve learned a lot since I have been here, it has taught me decorum; how to deal with people whom I had never normally come into contact with like Captains of Industry and I think it has moulded me and improved me as a person. I will be so pleased to see friendly faces in the crowd, it will mean a lot to me.
So how do you keep your mind in the right place and keep your expectations and dreams in check during The Open?
The honest answer is I don’t know, I’ve never done it before. All I know is that as a golfer, being confident is the only way to think. I just don’t want to come across as arrogant or sounding like I ‘ve made it already. I’m a struggling pro with a chance to dream
How far have you dared to dream?
Oh, all the way, all the way. If you are going to dream, dream big! It’s a difficult question, I’m confident in my game, I’m not there to make up the numbers, I want to compete. I believe if I can stick to my plan and keep striking the ball and managing the course the way I can, I can give myself chances to get onto the big yellow leaderboard. Equally, I have nothing to lose, at the very least I will get a great experience under my belt for the future, I really can’t see a downside. There are a few exemptions that I can achieve by making the cut, so that may come into my thinking, but overall I’m just really excited to be there.
What logic can you play out in your mind that sees your dreams coming true?
I feel really good, I don’t feel overawed or like the rookie. If there is any sporting event where an outsider can come through the pack it’s The Open. I read a book about Ben Curtis and it brought a tear to my eye, really inspiring stuff. My game is very tidy and I know I didn’t get here by getting good luck, so I think my game is suited to Lytham and obviously to links and I think the home advantage with my friends, family, Hoylake members and new supporters cheering me on, can be a real positive for me. I don’t have to shoot a score I have never shot before, 6 under like at S&A would be a competitive score over 36 holes of The Open.