“Am I ever gonna get this chance again? Probably not.”
That was the thought Graeme Robertson was desperately trying to keep at bay as he aimed to maintain his focus and secure qualification for The 151st Open.
Nineteen players booked their places at Royal Liverpool through Final Qualifying on Tuesday, with Robertson joining Michael Stewart, Marco Penge and Connor McKinney in making it through at Dundonald Links on Scotland’s west coast.
Yet Robertson had to fight harder than anyone else to earn his spot. It was not until the fifth hole of a nerve-jangling play-off had been completed – his 41st hole of a gruelling day – that he could finally celebrate the most significant achievement of his golfing career.
“I was trying not to think about [qualifying for The Open], but I just kept thinking about it all the way round and how much it would mean to get in, so it’s brilliant,” said the Scot.
Now 35, Robertson enjoyed considerable success as an amateur player, but he only turned professional in 2021 – having worked as a sales person in the building trade for several years.
“I didn't stop playing golf, but I worked full-time and didn't play a lot and then the last couple of years I've actually come back to the game and started my PGA training,” he explained.
“If you'd said to me three or four years ago this was going to happen, when I was sitting behind a computer desk 7:30 to 5, Monday to Friday, I wouldn’t have believed it. Honestly, I can't even put it into words."
Robertson had tears in his eyes and was understandably emotional given the events of the previous couple of hours.
He had looked likely to fall agonisingly short after some missed chances in his second round, but a mammoth birdie putt on his final hole, the ninth, ultimately proved enough to earn a place in a play-off for two spots with McKinney and Craig Ross.
McKinney progressed on the second extra hole as he birdied the par-three 11th, but Robertson missed a golden opportunity to join him, lipping out from four feet with his par attempt.
It was not until Robertson and Ross returned to the 11th green around 40 minutes later, for what was now the fifth play-off hole, that the pair were finally separated.
And it was another huge putt that did the trick for Robertson as he converted from around 40 feet before watching Ross miss from roughly half that distance.
“To be honest, I had that putt during my second round and the last six foot it just broke to the right,” Robertson added. “So I knew if I set it up the left it would have a chance with good pace, and then the last four feet I knew it was in, so that was nice.
“I felt like he [Ross] was gonna hole his putt. I felt like it was gonna be that kind of day. I just couldn’t wait for it to end. I know Craig quite well, you obviously want your friends to do well, but luckily I managed to come out on top this time.”
McKinney, the other man to come through the play-off, may represent Australia, but the 21-year-old was born in Scotland and cannot wait to make his major debut in a Championship he grew up watching.
“To play in golf’s oldest Championship as your first major… it’s something I have always dreamed of,” said McKinney, who shot rounds of 70 and 71 in regulation play like Robertson and Ross.
“It’s a pretty surreal feeling, to be sure. I hung in all day, got a few putts and did what I had to do.”
While McKinney and Robertson were forced to battle through extra holes, Stewart and Penge enjoyed more comfortable passages to The 151st Open, albeit the latter required a special turnaround.
Stewart was near the top of the leaderboard at Dundonald throughout the day, before a closing burst of four birdies in five holes lifted the local favourite to seven-under and the top of the standings.
By contrast, Penge staged a stunning comeback having been five-over after 13 holes. The Englishman birdied three of his last five holes in the morning to rescue a 74, before an afternoon 65 – the best score of the day – ensured he made it through Final Qualifying for the second year in succession.
“In the afternoon I just played unbelievably and it could have been more really,” said Penge.
“Being from Great Britain The Open is our home major and the history of the event just makes it unbelievable.
“Last year was the best week of my life. I remember leaving that week - I didn’t play well and was quite disappointed - and saying to my team I want to be back here. The feeling that you get is something else.”
Stewart is attached to Troon Welbeck Golf Club - just a few miles down the coast from Dundonald - and received plenty of support as he topped the leaderboard.
The European Challenge Tour player was part of Great Britain and Ireland’s victorious Walker Cup side at Royal Aberdeen in 2011 – against an American side featuring Jordan Spieth, Patrick Cantlay and Harris English – while he also reached the final of The Amateur Championship in the same year.
“I'm just delighted, absolutely delighted, said Stewart.
“Obviously I’m from this part of the world, so it was great. It’s good being a local lad, having so many folk to come out and support me. It gives you a little bit of momentum or encouragement when things maybe aren’t going quite to plan.”
Along with Robertson, McKinney and Penge, Stewart can now look forward to a trip to Hoylake in just a couple of weeks, a venue he is already familiar with.
“It will be great – I played the Junior Open in 2006 and we went as spectators when Tiger won, so I obviously have fond memories of the place,” he added.