Slow start for Open hopefuls

Tim Glover watches 116 players who are dreaming of Troon at a regional qualifier
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The Independent Online
Had they been playing in the Open championship itself, they would have been timed and fined.

Four and a half hour rounds per threeball was the norm and that was in perfect conditions at Hankley Common Golf Club yesterday, one of 13 venues in a huge logistical exercise called regional qualifying.

That is just the beginning. At Hankley Common, course designed by the great James Braid in the heart of Surrey, 116 hopefuls played one round of strokeplay, the leading 14 going through to final qualifying.

In Scotland, just before the Open they will play another two rounds of purgatory in places like Irvine, Bogside, Kilmarnock, Barassie for the slim chance of actually getting into the Open at RoyalTroon.

Every year the R&A solemnly pronounces on the evils of slow play but on yesterday's evidence they do not appear to put their money where their mouth is.

"Its a desperate situation" said one of the R&A blazers at Hankley Common. "It's all about attitude and coaching. They have pre-set routines which they will not waver from. Even the boys, picking up bad habits from television, are taking an age to hit a shot. It's terribly hard to know what to do."

The R&A's reluctance to start playing traffic warden in regional qualifying tournaments is understandable. The competition is a lucrative source of income.

Over 1,600 competitors, profession and amateur, paid pounds 75 each for a round on courses from Aberdeen to Portsmouth. If they happened to be from abroad, dollars, pesetas or francs would do nicely.

It was a particularly frustrating day for Martin Chase, an Englishman who teaches golf in Germany. Chase, who came over for the weekend, hit his ball into a clump of heather at the fourth and damaged his wrist as he attempted to extricate it. He was forced to retire.

No such problems for Keith Waters who returned a par 71 which was the height of respectability.

What caught most players out was the speed of Hankley Common's greens. They registered in excess of 10 on the stimpmeter and while that may not be in Augusta National class it is pretty quick by British standards.

Waters used to be a regular on the European Tour, the one in the players' lounge studiously pouring over the share prices in the Financial Times. Not that there was any danger that the FT would be well thumbed by his colleagues.

Apart from last year, Waters has been in final qualifying for 20 seasons on the trot. At the age of 39 he is deputy managing director of the European Seniors Tour.

His last competitive tournament was the British Masters in 1995. Yesterday morning he got his bags out of the garage for the first time in two years.

"By entering I was giving myself an incentive to play and practice," Waters said. He has played in 10 Open championships, two of them at Royal Troon.

In those days Waters used to be a running mate of Nick Price - until something extraordinary happened in Harare. The quietly spoken Englishman put down his FT before beating Price in a play-off for the Zimbabwean Open in 1991.

"Everybody hated me," Waters said. "Except the bookmakers and my caddie."