Open door slams shut on the hopefuls

Richard Edmondson watches the start of the struggle to qualify for St Andrews
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The Independent Online
At 7.00 this morning David Wilton will open his golf pro shop, collect the post from the mat and wait for a first customer seeking advice on how to correct a cranky swing. It will be like this for another year.

Wilton's hopes of rising above the mundaneness of a club professional's life came and went, like it did for so may others, in a single round yesterday. The regional qualifying competitions for next week's Open, held at 12 separate fields of dreams yesterday, produced far more losers than winners.

Of the 1,491 who entered just 240 went forward, and they will have to play another 36 holes of final qualifying in Scotland in an effort to make it to St Andrews proper. The wayside will be heavily populated.

"It's something that keeps you going," Wilton said. "If people knew what it involved I don't think anyone would become a club professional, but days like this make it seem worthwhile. My dream, the dream of all the guys here, is that one day, just one day, we will tee the ball up in the Open."

One of yesterday's venues, South Herts Golf Club at Totteridge in north London, drew a cosmopolitan bunch, not many of them shy if the many sponsored cars were anything to go by. Competitors from France, Japan and Zambia arrived to challenge the south-eastern set.

Elsewhere in the qualifiers was a man who seemed born to the job, a certain Nicklaus Hamilton, who played at Wilmslow. There were also amateurs such as Phil Carr, a master at Haileybury School who develops his short game on a nine-hole course woven intriguingly between the school's buildings.

But it was at South Herts that the golfers would have felt the greatest force of history. This is the club that has supplied professionals of the calibre of Dai Rees CBE, the former Ryder Cup captain, and Harry Vardon, who popularised the grip that most players employ today.

Vardon won the Open six times over the bridge into the 20th century, and examples of the rudimentary equipment he used to capture those titles are encased at Totteridge. The clubs look like implements you might find in plumber's mate's holdall, while the balls have the look of the long- submerged variety that are offered on municipal courses by urchins in wellingtons.

Vardon is buried nearby, appropriately enough at St Andrew's Church, and there may have been a whirring noise in the graveyard yesterday as, by late afternoon back at Totteridge, nobody had broken 70.

Wilton, the brother of the Stoke racehorse trainer, Sue, was struggling to reach the final qualifier and a possible appointment with a "name" (Ben Crenshaw and Phil Mickelson have been forced to qualify in recent years).

The club man was once down to play with another well-known American golfer. "But he didn't show up," the professional said. "I think he was doing some of this [invisible tankard raised to the lips]..."

It will be of some comfort to those who can master the Vardon grip but not the swinging bit that comes afterwards to learn that even the skillful practitioners of yesterday are not without fragility. "If there is one difference between the people out there and the top golfers its belief," Wilton said. "The mental attitude of club pros is usually worse than that of a high handicapper. At least I gave it a rip and gave myself a chance."

Unfortunately, as he came off the 18th green, Wilton's card showed that he had given it a rip 79 times and that he would not be among those going to Scotland for the next round. He put his clubs away and headed for the bar, probably wondering whether he had ordered sufficient tees and balls to see his shop through to the end of the week.