Will The Open Qualifying Series provide the Champion Golfer of the Year?
The first tee shot at Royal Portrush might be eight months away but the road to The 148th Open starts this weekend on the other side of the world.
The Emirates Australian Open marks the first of 16 events in 11 countries that form The Open Qualifying Series 2019 and the leading three players, who finish in the top ten and ties and who are not already exempt, will qualify for The Open.
The Qualifying Series takes place all over the world, from Sydney to Detroit and everywhere in between, starting this week and ending with the Scottish Open and John Deere Classic in July.
Of course, every player would prefer to know their place at the world’s oldest major is already secured but world ranking does not necessarily correlate to performance on the links.
A qualifier has lit up each of the last three Opens and gone close to winning each time, highlighting again how deep the quality of an Open field is each year.
So as the field prepare to play in Australia, here is a flashback to some favourite qualifier performances.
Eddie Pepperell, Carnoustie 2018
Enigmatic Englishman Eddie Pepperell booked his place at The 147th Open at the last opportunity with a second-place finish at the Scottish Open, just four days before the tournament began.
A winner at the Qatar Masters in February, Pepperell had rediscovered his best form heading into the Scottish Open and he took the bull by the horns by coming second.
Pepperell’s Open campaign was solid if not spectacular to begin with, as he shot rounds of 71, 70 and 71 to sit at one-under heading into the final day.
With the likes Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Kevin Kisner, Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood at the top of the leaderboard, Pepperell was out early on Sunday and made the most of the kind conditions.
A blistering 67, including five birdies, saw him take the clubhouse lead and, as the wind rolled in off the North Sea, the leaders began to struggle.
At five-under, Pepperell was in with a chance and it was only when Francesco Molinari emerged from the crowd to take command late on Sunday afternoon did Pepperell’s hopes of victory fade.
Still, it was the best round of the day, enough for tied sixth, and he later provided perhaps the quote of the day too:
"I was a little hungover. I had too much to drink last night. I was so frustrated with yesterday that today was - I wouldn't say a write-off, but I didn't feel as though I was in the tournament.”
Matthew Southgate, Royal Birkdale 2017
Grit and determination is an overused term in sport but in Matthew Southgate’s case it fits the bill perfectly.
Diagnosed with cancer in 2015, the 30-year-old tumbled outside of the world’s top 1000 but just two years later he was the highest finishing Englishman at The 146th Open.
Southgate qualified for Royal Birkdale at Royal Cinque Ports and headed to Southport full of confidence after a second-place finish at the Irish Open – the same tournament that he secured his immediate future at a year previously.
With nothing to fear and everything to gain, Southgate attacked Birkdale and compiled two steady rounds of 72 but with the weather a little kinder, the course became easier to play and on Saturday he fired a sublime 67.
The lead, held by Jordan Spieth, was out of reach on the final day but Southgate still mounted a thrilling charge, finishing tied sixth following an electric 65. When his putt went in on 18, he received one of the loudest roars of the day.
Steve Stricker, Royal Troon 2016
Few things stir a crowd like a wily old veteran rolling back the years, whether that’s Tom Watson at Turnberry or Greg Norman at Royal Birkdale.
In 2016, that roll fell to Steve Stricker – a 26-time professional winner who had never quite cracked the links.
Stricker had a previous Open best of tied seventh in 2008 and had not played in the tournament since 2012 when he entered the FedEx St Jude Classic.
Must have information on Royal Portrush ⛳️ pic.twitter.com/W5Jip8jmKV— The Open (@TheOpen) November 7, 2018
A joint-second there guaranteed him a place at Royal Troon in 2016 and although he did not quote compete for the Claret Jug like Watson and Norman, he rolled back the years in style.
Contrasting rounds of 67 and 75 left him in the middle of the pack at the half-way point but he regained his poise to strike a 68 and 69 at the weekend