He could not afford the entry, now he is part of the Tiger hunt

Warren Bladon had to give up the game to work as a plumber but this week he shares the Open stage with the world's best
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The Independent Online

Back in 1996, Warren Bladon and Tiger Woods had the world at their feet. Until then, Bladon, then 30, had been an aspirant pro from Leamington Spa, working in a Midlands pub to make ends meet. Then he won the British Amateur championship and a new world beckoned: global travel, money, professional glory.

Tiger was 20. He won the US Amateur that year, for the third time in a row. The players' paths crossed at Royal Lytham. Tiger finished in a tie for 22nd place, with a total of 271, an Open score that no amateur has ever bettered. Bladon shot two 73s and missed the cut.

Woods' career went into orbit and by the Masters of 1997 he had his first major in his bag. Bladon's remained bare until he gave up golf and filled his bag with plumbing tools. He never fell out of love with the game, it was just that love did not pay the bills.

He played at the 1997 Masters, and even practised with Jack Nicklaus, but he struggled to get sponsorship. "In your 30s it's difficult when there's all these young players coming up behind you," said Bladon, a careworn giant of a man - 6ft 3in, 18 and a half stone - talking here yesterday.

Success was limited. The travel and lifestyle took its toll on his marriage. He got divorced, and effectively gave up the game. "My life's been up and down - it's not been very steady."

Fast forward a decade and, incredibly, Bladon and Woods are sharing the Open stage again. Woods is here by right. Bladon, now 40, who mostly dabbles with recreational golf these day and has played fewer rounds this year than many fans who will turn up to watch, has taken the hard route.

Amazingly, the Open will be only his fourth event of 2006, after a minor tournament plus regional qualifying and then final qualifying last week at Conwy. And he was not even going to enter until his girlfriend, Caroline, persuaded him that she would be willing to put the £110 entry fee on her credit card.

"I didn't have the money myself," Bladon said. "I don't have a great job."

Bladon earns £6.50 an hour as a picture framer, and makes bits and bobs as a plumbing assistant to a friend, Ian Stranks, who will caddie for him here.

He has yet to repay the £110, although an £875 prize from qualifying plus a minimum of £2,000 here will leave plenty of cash for that, even after the hotel bill at a local Travel Inn has been sorted out.

Lack of cash, he said, "is normal life for most people, paying the bills, day-to-day life - at the time I entered I didn't have the money to pay and [Caroline] offered to put it on her credit card. She said on one condition, that I practise a little bit, to at least have a good chance of getting through the first stage - £110 for a round of golf is a lot of money."

He came through regional qualifying easily, as one of 20 from 120, then squeezed through a field of 96 as one of three who cleared the final hurdle. The key to his success, he said, was instead of working 7am to 3pm in his day job and only playing with mates on Wednesdays and Saturdays, he put in a couple of hours of practice after work each day.

"It just shows I can play," he said. "People have written me off, and I'm now 40. I don't think it's an age issue. I've missed all the records for winning things at the youngest age but there's no reason you can't win the Open in your 40s.

"Now I just want to do as well as I can. I want to come off the course knowing that I haven't been overcome by it and just control myself and hit the right shots at the right time. And if I do that I'll be happy."