For six years Ian Spencer never picked up a golf club. In 1996 his daughter was born with a terminal illness and through the turn of the century Spencer stayed at home to look after her.
Two years ago she lost her fight. Spencer picked up the pieces of his life and returned to the game that had once given him a taste of the European Tour. He didn't expect a great deal because, as he said, "it's hard enough even when you've been playing all the time". He entered a couple of Europro Tour events as he felt his way back and surprised everybody, but most of all himself, when he only missed out on a place in last year's Open by two shots. "I hadn't given myself much of a chance," he confessed.
This gave him the confidence to try again this year and although he fared even better than 2003, his commendable efforts seemed all in vein when the Wirral professional missed out at Irvine in a five-man play-off. Weighing up his chances of landing a precious spot as the Open's second reserve, Spencer decided to spare himself the torment of waiting and drove south to be united with his wife and three children.
But then the call came, the one that Spencer never expected. Events on Sunday night at the John Deere Classic had conspired to let in the first reserve, Barry Hume, and then Japan's Toshi Izawa withdrew with a severe sinus infection. The 38-year-old from Heswall Golf Club was in and, just to cap it off, the draw for the first two rounds pitched him in with the dual major-winner Vijay Singh and the American Ryder Cup player David Toms.
"That's brilliant," said Spencer when told of his pairing. "I actually know Vijay from a long time ago, although I don't know if he will remember me. I finished second to him in the Nigerian Open in the late 1980s on the Safari Tour."
By then the Merseysider was hurtling up the M6 to arrive at Troon in time for a practice round today. At least he didn't have to ask for directions, having made the trip twice in the space of three days after he arrived in Ayrshire last Friday for the weekend's final qualifiers. But with only 15 places up for grabs from a field of 384, his mission seemed a forlorn one indeed. "To be honest with you I didn't pack enough clothes to last beyond Sunday because there were only four places available from my final qualifying course," he said.
"I decided to go home and come back and wait to see if anyone pulled out and I'm delighted to get in. My wife and the kids are coming with me and we've managed to find somewhere to stay so I'm looking forward to it."
And while Spencer admitted it was the proverbial "dream come true", this week will not quite be the "once-in-a-lifetime experience", as he appeared on golf's grandest stage as a young professional. "I played in the Open before, in 1992 at Muirfield and missed the cut. But it's a thrill to play any time."
His efforts 12 years ago launched him on his way to the European Tour and, after he eventually won his Tour card at qualifying school, a successful career seemed imminent when he finished fifth behind Paul Eales at the Extremadura Open in 1994. Then tragedy struck. Tomorrow Spencer will be back where his talent says he belongs.
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