Golf / Open Championship Countdown: Numbers game squeezes home players: Aspirants suffer a day of torment as an acknowledged Master experiences self-doubt

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THE field of 156 players for the 122nd Open Championship was completed yesterday when an assortment of professionals, assistant professionals, amateurs and no-hopers competed in the hardest two rounds of their lives. Jack Nicklaus, after winning the US Seniors over the weekend, informed the R and A that he would, after all, be playing in the Open. Big Jack boarded his private jet, Air Bear, and pointed the nose towards the Atlantic. Had the great man declined the invitation Richard O'Hanlon would probably have got in.

O'Hanlon, 22, an assistant professional at Brocton Hall in Staffordshire, was originally 44th reserve after regional qualifying but as others lost heart he turned up on Sunday at Royal Cinque Ports, one of four links courses used for the two days of final qualifying. O'Hanlon and his girlfriend, who found a room above a burger bar in Canterbury, hung around all weekend and got in when somebody withdrew. He shot 68 in the first round and 75 yesterday. It was one stroke too many.

The number crunching is frightening. The total entry for the Open was a record 1,827 of whom 1,461 competed in regional qualifying over 12 courses earlier this month. For final qualifying there were 480 survivors and the leading 53 - 14 at Prince's, 13 at Littlestone, 13 at North Foreland, and 13 at Royal Cinque Ports - will tee off at Royal St George's on Thursday.

At Royal Cinque Ports there were 13 players on par or better and O'Hanlon was one above. It did not, however, end there. Should anybody withdraw from the Open, a list of alternates is drawn up and O'Hanlon went into a play-off with Joe Higgins for the honour of simply being a reserve. It was not resolved until Higgins prevailed at the fourth extra hole. O'Hanlon made a return pilgrimage to Canterbury and packed his bags.

At North Foreland there were more hard luck tales. A lucky 13 players qualified on 139 and eight others were on 140. Among them was Brian Barnes and he declined to go into a play- off for alternate places three and seven. So many players, so few places, a situation exacerbated by the imbalance in the number who go straight into the championship. This year 103 were exempt. Last year it was 92. As many as 50 get in each year by virtue of being the leading players in the Sony world rankings, devised by Mark McCormack and embraced with careless haste by the R and A.

This year for the first time the R and A held a qualifying competition in Japan, causing some, Peter Baker among them, to accuse the governing body of making life easier for overseas players. When the Open was last held at Royal St George's, in 1985, it was preceded by an event at The Belfry. Then, those who had to qualify in Kent did not face the frantic timetable endured by players who made a mad dash from the Bell's Scottish Open at Gleneagles over the weekend to make early tee times on Sunday morning.

Baker qualified comfortably yesterday but said: 'It is a ridiculous situation. The system is wrong. I'd rather be fresh for the Open.' Baker points to an anomaly. Earlier this year he won the Dunhill British Masters but it did not earn him an exemption. In the Scottish Open the top five finishers not otherwise exempt go straight into the Open.

Only two amateurs came through final qualifying, Michael Welch, the 19-year-old prodigy from Hill Valley in Shropshire and Simon Griffiths, the 20-year-old son of a car dealer from Thames Ditton. Welch, whose father, Les, caddied for him, shot 66 yesterday at Royal Cinque Ports, the England youth captain having qualified last year at Muirfield but missed the half-way cut. Griffiths shot 69, 68 at North Foreland and this was some improvement on 12 months ago. In the regional qualifying at South Herts he scored 11 at the second hole and walked off the course.

Domingo Hospital, the Spanish professional, saw his hopes disintegrate with a 79 that included four penalty strokes for changing his type of ball at the 12th and the 13th. At the Tour school at the beginning of the year he came top in the rules class. Another Spaniard, Carlo Mason, did not have a prayer, scoring 80 and 81. Perhaps it was just as well for, with the Englishman Carl Mason qualifying at Prince's, it could have confused the scorers.

Qualifying scores Sporting Digest, page 33

(Photograph omitted)