It’s now 10:30pm and I haven’t got a cinematic thing to speak about so I’m going to turn this into a Golf Pie. For those who aren’t interested, tune out now and I’ll see you next week. I promise I’ll have something more interesting to speak about. It’s just that I want to put in writing my Aussie Open qualifying experience so I can add it to my website (kind of like a journal). So read on, if you dare…
I’m basically a golfer who doesn’t practice and doesn’t get any lessons. I just turn up, hit a few shots, see which direction the ball is going in, and then start fixing the problems. That’s pretty much a standard round – it’s never easy but it’s fun to grind it out and scramble (thanks to a half-decent short game). I don't have the time or the patience to practice regularly.
On 18 October 2005, I achieved something I thought I would never do. I got through the first stage of qualifying for the Australian Open. Regional qualifying takes place all across Australia and here in Brisbane, I was one of 12 (out of a total field of 112) who advanced to the final qualifying stage. I shot at 1 under par round of 70 at my local club, Virginia. It certainly helped to be playing at my home club but I did strike the ball magnificently that day. It got a bit ragged down the stretch but after holing a 6-footer on the 17th and a 15-footer on the 18th, I snuck in by one shot. Holing those putts under pressure meant a lot because I’m usually not the best it such situations. I just tried not to think about anything, stayed cool, and got the result.
I had to wait five weeks for the final stage but this delay only enhanced the experience. My good form disappeared but I had five whole weeks to savour the moment. Unlike so many other professionals and amateurs who had tried out, I was still part of the Australian Open. I've always believed that the secret of life is anticipation and here I had something massive to look forward to. I excitedly thought about it every day.
The draw came out for the final qualifying on 5 November 2005 and I was scheduled to play the North Course at Rosebud Country Club. I called the club not long after and booked a practice round at 1pm on the day before the actual qualifying. I didn't mind who I played with.
Leading up to the final qualifying stage, I had to book a flight to Melbourne, organize car hire and find a hotel. I now have a greater respect for professionals and the travelling they go through on a week to week basis. It ain’t easy carrying around all your equipment and clothes in a few bags every single week. I left for Brisbane Airport at 4pm on Saturday afternoon and after a 2-hour drive from Melbourne Airport to Rosebud (on the Mornington Peninsula), it was 11:30pm by the time I finally arrived at the hotel. I felt like I'd wasted a whole day and for the pros who play every week, it’s a day which can’t really be spared.
After a relaxing morning, I turned up at Rosebud on Sunday, 20 November 2005 to play my practice round. Turning up at the 10th tee right on 1pm, I found myself playing with two teenagers I had not heard of before - Rory McIlroy (from Ireland) and Oliver Fisher (from England). Each had their father caddying for them and it was their very first trip to Australia.
I’ve seen a lot of young golfers play here in Australia but Rory and Oliver were unbelievably impressive. They shaped the ball in either direction with nonchalant ease. Their short games were also very precise. What I enjoyed most of all was their friendly demeanour and general enjoyment for the game. They had heaps of fun on the course and played a light-hearted match against each other (which Oliver won with a birdie on the final hole). Personality wise, I don’t think I’ve ever played with two finer youngsters. They never took things too seriously and were never upset by an errant shot. Their fathers were also easy-going and I did my best to answer the questions they all had about Australia (including why there were no kangaroos bounding across the fairways).
I felt a bit impolite asking about their golfing history but I knew they had talent. On returning to my hotel room that night, a quick internet search told me all I needed to know. Oliver became the youngest player in Walker Cup history when he competed for the UK & Ireland back in July 2005 (the previous youngest player was Justin Rose). If you don’t know, the Walker Cup is the Ryder Cup for amateurs. Oliver also made the semi finals of the 2005 British Amateur and made the final 32 in the U.S. Amateur (at Merion). Not bad for a 17-year-old!
Rory McIlroy hails from Ireland and this year became the youngest ever winner of the Irish Amateur Close Championship (the previous youngest winner was Ronan Rafferty). Rory also had the chance to compete in three European Tour events in 2005 (although he sadly missed the cut in all three). Not bad for 16-year-old!!!
These two are destined for bigger and better things and I hope they have a very successful golfing career. I'd love to be able to gloat one day and say that I played a game here in Australia with Rory McIlroy and Oliver Fisher. Both have accepted invitations to the Australian Masters at Huntingdale in two weeks time and I’ll be putting a few dollars on them for sure.
As for myself, I didn’t hit the ball very well during the practice round and the signs weren’t too good going into Monday. The fairways are wide (which suited my erratic driving) but I was struggling to (a) pick the right club to hit into the greens and (b) then hitting the ball in a direction in line with the pin.
For the qualifying on 21 November 2005, I played in a two-ball with Guy Penrose, a New Zealander who turned professional this year and coincidentally won the pro-am at my home club, Virginia (which happened to be held on my birthday). He struck the ball amazingly well off the tee and was great to play with but sadly he three putted the final two holes to finish two shots shy of the qualifying mark.
Observing these professionals in action left me amazed. They don't strike the ball that much better than me but they have an ability to score and get the job done. What struck me most was their distance precision. Before hitting a shot, I generally pace out the yardage and find a club which I think suits. When I hit the shot however, very rarely does the ball finish exactly pin-high. These professionals and leading amateurs are different - when they hit a shot it's almost always travels the perfect distance. Even if they stray off-line, they're never going to have a putt much longer than 20 feet. This control over their shot distance is a testament to the hours of practice they put in and I wish I had that ability.
My own round got off to a poor start when I missed a 3-foot putt for par on the opening hole. The struggle continued but thanks to some top up and downs and some nice putts, I managed to par the next 11 holes. On the 13th, I rolled in a 15-foot putt for birdie and now back at even par, I was starting to get a little excited. Could it be…
The answer was no. I found a fairway bunker on the 14th which led to bogey and the water on the 15th which led to a double bogey. My mental energy was gone and a final bogey on the 17th left me with a +4 score of 75. There were only 5 scores worse than that on the day (out of the field of 60) which says a lot about the quality of players in the field. The cut-off was an amazingly low 68 (3 under par) with 60% of the field shooting par or better. Putting things into perspective, I’m not too disappointed. I was never playing well enough to a shoot a 68 so I can’t say I was unlucky or deserved better.
The lowest score of the day was a course record 65 from young American professional Spencer Levin. Levin finished 13th at the 2004 U.S. Open which was the best performance by an amateur in 33 years. His first round included a hole-in-one. Levin is playing in a few events over the Australian summer and I'm sure it'll build his profile as a professional.
I then learned another rule which professionals know all too well. When you've missed out on qualifying or missed the cut, the last thing you want to do is hang around town. You don't want to watch the others play and there's always lingering thoughts about what might have been had you played better. By moving on the to the next event, you can refocus, iron out the problems and get your enthusiasm back. It was 2pm and I didn't want to be hanging around Rosebud for the evening in a hotel room by myself. I called Qantas, had my flight changed and managed to get a flight back to Brisbane at 6:10pm. One of my best mental decisions for the week!
In all, it was an amazing experience that I was very glad to have. I was around some of the best professionals and amateurs in the country (including some from overseas) and watched them compete for a spot in our national championship. It was not to be for me and it’s back to work tomorrow but I’d love to have a second crack at it sometime in the near future.
For those interested, Oliver shot a 72 to miss out but Rory finished with a 69. This put him in a 7-way play-off for the 4th alternate spot. Amazingly, he won it. So if four people happen to pull out of the Aussie Open before Thursday, he’ll get a start in the field.
Footnote 1: Four people did pull out! So 16-year-old Rory McIlroy made the Open field (and I believe he was the youngest competitor). He shot 73-79-152 and sadly missed the cut by three shots but a top effort nevertheless.
Footnote 2: Oliver and Rory went on to compete in the Australian Masters at Huntingdale and both made the cut. I believe it's the first time that either has made the cut in a four round professional event. Rory finished tied for 49th with scores of 74-70-73-72-289. Oliver shot the lowest score in the final round and his 70-72-74-66-282 lifted him to a tie for 13th. How good is that! He tied for low amateur with Australian prodigy Jason Day.