The starting gun has officially been fired on the road to Royal St George’s.
Australia was the setting for the curtain-raiser of The Open Qualifying Series for 2020 as players attempted to nail down their berth at The 149th Open early doors.
Only three places were up for grabs Down Under at the Emirates Australia Open, hosted by The Australian Golf Club in Sydney, for those not already exempt for golf’s oldest major.
And it was an Australian who emerged victorious as Matt Jones recorded a one-shot victory to secure his national championship for a second time after also taking the title in 2015.
But he was not the only one celebrating, as Aaron Pike and World No.1 amateur Takumi Kanaya also secured their places at Sandwich for The Open’s return to St George’s.
A chance to contest for the prestigious Claret Jug in July now awaits the trio but before we look at the challenge ahead for them, we’ve delved into their journey up until this point.
Third time’s a charm for Jones
Where better to start than with the champion? Playing his home course, Matt Jones could not have enjoyed a better day on Sunday as he clinched his second Australian Open title.
The 39-year-old was joined by his wife - and former Miss Idaho - Melissa, as well as their three daughters, on the 18th green as they toasted his latest tournament success.
Jones will now contest The Open for a fifth time at Royal St George’s next year – taking his place in the field once again after missing out on last year’s Championship in Portrush.
This is the third time he has earned his spot through The Open Qualifying Series, having also used the same route for The 145th Open at Royal Troon and The 147th Open at Carnoustie.
With both of those invites coming courtesy of finishes at the Australian Open, he will be hoping it’s a case of third time’s a charm as he looks to build on his previous consistent Open showings.
Other than missing the cut at Carnoustie, Jones has finished T-54, T-30 and T-39 in his first three Open appearances – form that points to a player who is comfortable with links golf.
The manner of his latest win certainly suggests he should thrive in Sandwich. His military precision in finding fairways and greens ensured he was rarely troubled at the top of the leaderboard.
But Jones has struggled to live up to his potential since enjoying his Nationwide Tour breakthrough in 2007, experiencing limited success in his rookie season on the PGA Tour a year later.
After years of picking up a handful of top 10s here and there, his first PGA Tour win finally arrived at the 2014 Shell Houston Open in what was his 156th start on the tour.
His highest golf ranking (41st) followed that triumph but with a second Australian Open now under his belt, he can look forward to a chance to emulate his heroes at St George’s.
“Coming from Australia, waking up and watching [Greg] Norman play, Peter Thomson is on there [the Claret Jug], it would be amazing to be on there too.”
Journeyman Pike comes good
Good things come to those who wait – and for Aaron Pike, his patience was finally rewarded at the Emirates Australian Open after bagging one of three spots available for St George’s.
Pike has been plugging away without much success on the various tours for several years and going into his national championship, he was 848th in the Official World Golf Rankings.
But he only narrowly missed out on achieving his Open dream in the same tournament last year, going out in the second to last group on Sunday before fading out of contention.
He watched instead as his friend and playing partner Dimitrios Papadatos took one of the spots for The Open at Portrush – an experience Pike believes helped him this time around.
“I was [in the] second last group and I actually played with Dimitrios [Papadatos] and he ended up getting one of them,” Pike said, when reflecting on his 2018 Australian Open.
“He’s a very good friend of mine and I remember I was egging him on, trying to get him over the line and he ended up finishing second. I think that helped a lot this year.
“I was kind of immune to it all, I didn’t really worry about it too much, just one shot at a time, just keep plugging away and I just kept hitting good shot after good shot.”
With Louis Oosthuizen the closest challenger to Jones this year, and already exempt as the 2010 Champion Golfer of the Year, that paved the way for others to take advantage.
And Pike did not need a second invitation as birdies on the 14th, 15th and 17th saw him shoot a final round of 69 to finish in a tie for third and secure his Open debut at St George’s.
Now up to No.412 in the world, the Queenslander will be able to call on another close friend in Jason Day for tips ahead of touching down in Kent next year for his first major experience.
“He's played in plent of them [majors], I haven't played in any of them, so I think I'll give him a call. I probably wouldn't be in the position I've been in lately without him.” Pike on Jason Day friendship
The best amateur on the planet
Jones and Pike will be joined in the field at St George’s by a name that has been making waves for a while now in the shape of Takumi Kanaya – otherwise known as the world’s No.1 amateur.
One of the rising stars of Japanese sport, Kanaya will be contesting The Open for a second time at St George’s despite only being 21 after leaving his Australian Open charge very late.
Kanaya was two over for his round at the turn before staging a fightback and showing his nerve to hole a six-foot birdie putt on the last hole to ensure he joined The 149th Open party.
And expectations will be higher than they were when he made his debut at Portrush, where he secured his spot by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in Singapore aged 20.
Ranked 22nd in world amateur golf at the time of that victory, he has since risen up the standings to sit at the summit after a string of impressive performances all over the world.
He even led The Masters briefly on his August debut earlier this year, making a birdie-birdie start on the Thursday before eventually shooting a one-over 73 in his first round.
The Hiroshima native did make the cut, however, only to miss out on the low amateur Silver Cup competition as Norwegian Viktor Hovland finished as the leading amateur.
Kanaya’s Open bow followed in July but he was unable to make the cut on The Open’s long-awaited return to Northern Ireland, although the experience will only aid him in Sandwich.
Even before making the field at Portrush, Kanaya had nearly qualified for Royal Troon in 2016 after finishing one shot behind Yuta Ikeda in the previous season’s Japan Open.
In fact, success has often followed him wherever he’s gone, winning his country’s amateur championship in 2015 and playing a part in Japan’s winning side at the Asian Games.
Now St George’s beckons and a chance to show the world what he can do once again.