Teenage talents battle with masters for place at Open

Never has it been so hard for the wide-eyed and hopeful to qualify for the Open. More than 3,000 were still dreaming at the beginning of last week of gaining the berth that is prized above all others in golf. Last Monday's regionals whittled it down to under 400, but then when the club professionals, leading amateurs and boys from nowhere turned up at final qualifying yesterday they found just six places up for grabs at each of the four courses in the Edinburgh area hosting this two-round scramble.

Never has it been so hard for the wide-eyed and hopeful to qualify for the Open. More than 3,000 were still dreaming at the beginning of last week of gaining the berth that is prized above all others in golf. Last Monday's regionals whittled it down to under 400, but then when the club professionals, leading amateurs and boys from nowhere turned up at final qualifying yesterday they found just six places up for grabs at each of the four courses in the Edinburgh area hosting this two-round scramble.

This alone would have put off many but when they looked down the list and found Ryder Cup players, established Tour professionals and even the odd major winner standing in their way, heads must have sunk into golf gloves. Indeed, if they had not amassed almost as many birdies as pars by yesterday evening then they might as well have turned round, gone home and tried something they had a chance in. How about this Wednesday's Lottery?

Mark James, for one, was furious with the situation – and he posted the joint-best score of the day at his qualifying course. "It's ridiculous that there are only six spots on offer here," Europe's former Ryder Cup captain said after his six-under-par 71 at Dunbar. "There are just too many exempt players for the Open nowadays."

This is the second year James has had to go through qualifying as he tries to claw his way back to the peaks he had reached before he had to beat off cancer 18 months ago. Last year the 48-year-old never made it and he is not guaranteed this time with two players matching his 65 – Sweden's Patrik Sjoland and Sam Walker from the Forest of Arden Golf Club – and 11 others within two shots. One of these, Steve Elkington might feel aggrieved that he does not qualify for an exemption. The 39-year-old Australian won a major in 1995, the USPGA, and has appeared four times for the Rest of the World against the United States in the biannual Presidents Cup match. However, in the sunny climes of East Lothian this week, reputations are the only thing that count lower than albatrosses and Elkington's 67 left him "praying for the wind to blow to spread eagle the field".

Mark Brooks, the 1997 USPGA champion, must have analysed the exemption rules even more closely as not only did he win the USPGA two years after Elkington but he was only denied his second major last year when touched off in a play-off in Tulsa for the US Open crown by Retief Goosen. Twenty-four fortnights from Tulsa and Brooks found himself at Luffness New yesterday shooting a one-under par 68 and lying seven shots off the pace. At least the player who shot that course-record 61, Andrew Coltart, should be safe especially if he maintains the form with the putter that helped the Scot to nine birdies yesterday.

Fredrik Andersson could feel just as comfortable after his course-record 62 at Gullane, a nine-under-par round that stunned the Swede as he awaits the results of an X-ray on a hip injury.

Some of the amateurs were not intimidated by the big names and big fields. Jonathan Evans, a 21-year-old from Guildford, pushed Coltart closest with a 63 while the best performance from the non-paid ranks came from Ireland's Colm Moriaty, a 23-year-old Walker Cup squad member, whose eight-under-par 63 broke the course record at North Berwick before South Africa's Trevor Immelman joined him.

Spare a thought, however, for the 15-year-old amateur Abbas-Ali Mawji, who made what he thought was a flying start in his attempt to become the youngest player to appear at an Open since Young Tom Morris in 1865. Mawji, who was born in Watford, grew up in Zimbabwe and now plays out of the Houghwood Golf Club in St Helens, said: "He was still pinching himself" after his early-morning 68 at Luffness New had outscored his professional partners, Simon Hurd and Grant Dodd. When he looked at the scoreboard last night he found 18 players ahead of him and 11 on the same score. At least Mawji could stop pinching. Golf had just woken him up with a smack in the face.

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