Lawrie provides inspiration for pursuit of unlikely Open dream

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The Independent Online

The Wimbledon closing gala ball was probably only just winding down when the dawn rose yesterday on the British summer's other great sporting feature-piece, the Open Championship. At 6.30am, the first of the 1,778 hopefuls, trying to escape the nightmare that is regional qualifying, fired the opening shots they prayed would blast a path all the way to Sandwich and a place in the Open proper on Thursday week.

The Wimbledon closing gala ball was probably only just winding down when the dawn rose yesterday on the British summer's other great sporting feature-piece, the Open Championship. At 6.30am, the first of the 1,778 hopefuls, trying to escape the nightmare that is regional qualifying, fired the opening shots they prayed would blast a path all the way to Sandwich and a place in the Open proper on Thursday week.

But unless they had come loaded with golden bullets, it was to be a forlorn hope for the eclectic bunch who gathered at 16 courses spanning the British Isles. From Galashiels to Ghana, from Portsmouth to Pakistan, from Newport to Nigeria they had come consumed with the common desire of a berth in the Open. But, in truth, the majority should never have bothered.

Indeed, if they had read the statistic that only three of the 1,800 who entered the regionals in 2002 had gone on to qualify for Muirfield then some might have thought twice. About 140 of them had skipped over the first hurdle last year only to arrive at the final qualifiers to discover there were only 26 places up for grabs.

With 280 higher-ranked competitors joining them, this was to prove one of the cruellest of 36-hole shoot-outs, especially as they had all paid £100 for the privilege. It was no comfort at all when some hasty mathematics worked out that the Royal & Ancient had accumulated more than £200,000 in entrance fees.

But it hasn't always been this difficult; in fact, only four years ago it was almost twice as easy. In 1999 there were 49 places on offer, a generosity Paul Lawrie took full advantage of by scraping through before achieving the unthinkable and lifting the Claret Jug. Since then, thanks to the R&A's ever-expanding exemp-tions list, the figure has fallen alarmingly: 44 in 2000, 34 in 2001, 26 in 2002. Royal St George's next week could see a similar reduction, as exemp-tions spiral to 101. In contrast, this year's US Open had only 73 exemptions with 83 coming through the qualifiers.

For the downbeaten British pro, it will be even tougher. Next year the R&A is hosting a series of international qualifiers in its search for "a more global event", meaning there will be a desultory 12 places on offer from the traditional qualifiers. As an official at Minchinhampton, one of the 16 courses in use for the 18-hole qualifiers yesterday, said: "If you can't say the dream is dead yet, it soon bloody will be. This lot won't have a prayer of getting through."

The allure of the Open is such that they will still come flocking no matter how long the odds. Liam Bond, a professional on the EuroPro Tour based at St Pierre in Gwent, spoke for many in saying: "If there was only one place on offer, there'd probably still be 1,500 of us willing to fight it out." All would be sniffing the overnight glory they believe would set them up for life. But if ever an example was needed for caution, it came no bigger than one of their number yesterday, Steven Bottomley.

In 1995, the Yorkshireman probably thought he had cracked it when the qualifier finished third at St Andrews, just one tantalising shot behind Costantino Rocca and the eventual victor, John Daly. But golf is a game that kicks you in the teeth only when it cannot get to a lower part of your anonymity. A few years later, Bottomley found that even the European Tour's journeymen had sped away. In 2000, with the funds running dry, he cried "enough" and undertook a PGA course to become a club professional. Now the 38-year-old gives lessons at Ghyllbeck Driving Range in Baildon, near Bradford.

The competitive fires still burn in Bottomley, however. Yesterday, he took his place at the qualifier at Alwoodley, saying he was only there "because my mate's paid for me... There aren't enough spots to make it worthwhile anymore and next year it will be even worse. Besides I haven't been playing well enough recently to justify the £100."

He certainly got value for his friend's money. Level par after 10 holes on the treacherous West Yorkshire course, he carved himself a little more Open history with a hole-in-one on the 167-yard 11th. He birdied the 12th, too, to stand at three under but only avoided a nightmare on the 15th by holing a 30-footer for a bogey. He spared himself another crisis with a 40-footer on the 17th for a double bogey, then conjured an outrageous up-and-down at the 18th to scrape in with a level-par 71.

This left him facing a twilight play-off last night for his first visit to final qualifiers in five years. "I find I don't get nervous anymore, unless I'm playing well - like this afternoon," he said. Goodness knows how he felt at St Andrews all those years ago.

Additional reporting by Dan Murphy

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