The road to The 149th Open begins in earnest this week at the Emirates Australia Open.
Starting on Thursday, the Down Under tournament is the curtain-raiser for The Open Qualifying Series for 2020 as golfers begin their bid to secure their berth at Royal St George’s.
Only the top three leading players (not already exempt) finishing top 10 and ties will be able to make their Open dream a reality before qualifying moves on to the next of the 16 international events.
And you only have to look at the story of Graeme McDowell during last year’s Qualifying Series to see the pressure, drama and emotion that comes with trying to qualify for The Open.
The Northern Irishman was desperate to play in The 148th Open in his hometown of Portrush and after several disappointments, he eventually got the job done at the Canadian Open.
To mark the start of the latest Open Qualifying Series, we have taken a closer look at McDowell’s rollercoaster journey from despair to jubilation on the Country Antrim coast.
McDowell sets his sights on Portrush
“I just hope I’m exempt and playing well. I guess it’s been a dream of mine as a kid. I’ve been out there, spent many an hour out there as a kid, and dreaming of playing major championships.”
From the moment the R&A announced The Open would be returning to Portrush after a 68-year hiatus, McDowell was 100 per cent focused on making sure he was in the field.
As the UK’s first winner of a major in the 21st century, the 2010 US Open champion’s success had helped reignite the movement to bring The Open back to Northern Ireland.
Further triumphs for fellow Ulstermen Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke ensured the argument was irresistible – but there was a problem, McDowell’s ranking had plummeted.
He fell out of the top 100 in 2017 and by the end of 2018, he finished at 238 in the world as McDowell admitted changes away from the course had impacted his form on it.
“Golf is a fickle game,” McDowell said. “I took my eye off the ball — it felt like for a second — and a hundred 25-year-old kids came running by me.”
Asking himself the tough questions
Starting this season, even McDowell’s PGA Tour card was in question. His entry status had fallen after finishing outside the top 150 in last year’s FedEx Cup standings.
“I’ve had to ask myself some pretty hard questions the last couple of years,” he said. “Thankfully, I’ve come to the conclusion that if it was all gone, I would miss it.”
His revival began with victory at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, a PGA TOUR event for those not eligible for a World Golf Championships place the same week.
With his full PGA Tour card restored, he could now turn his attention to booking his place at Portrush – insisting it would be unbearable if he missed out.
“I'm going to do everything I can to make sure I'm there,” he said. “I've already said there is no amount of alcohol that could keep me on the property of Portrush that week if I'm not competing.”
But with his opportunities running out, McDowell was aware he was getting very close to being in the last chance saloon when he arrived at the latest stop on the qualifying schedule, the Canadian Open.
Feeling the weight of pressure
“There’s enough of a storyline trying to compete every week without having the (Portrush) storyline all the time. Qualifying for The Open, I felt the story snowballing,” McDowell said.
“I felt like every tournament that I went to, people were reminding me that I wasn't in Portrush. 'Hope to see you at Portrush,' 'Hope you get in.' Yeah, I know. I hope I do, too” McDOWELL ON thE 148TH oPEN
“I felt like every tournament that I went to, people were reminding me that I wasn’t in Portrush. ‘Hope to see you at Portrush,’ ‘Hope you get in.’ Yeah, I know. I hope I do, too.”
There were only 59 places available for Portrush by the time McDowell teed off at the Canadian Open, where three of those remaining spots in the field were available.
But thankfully for McDowell, the sixth event of The Open Qualifying Series proved his saviour as he sneaked into the top ten as compatriot and 2014 Champion Golfer McIlroy lifted the title.
McDowell put himself in contention to qualify after back-to-back birdies on the 12th and 13th holes during his final round, propelling the Northern Irishman up the leaderboard.
He then found the rough twice on the 72nd hole, only to recover and sink a 30ft putt for par to clinch the second available qualifying place behind Adam Hadwin by finishing tied eighth.
Portrush relief and qualification boost
“I feel hugely relieved. It’s going to feel epic on that first tee. The fans are going to offer huge support and they are excited to have the best players in the world come to Portrush.”
With qualification no longer in doubt, McDowell was freed to contest the US Open in June at Pebble Beach, the place where he had sensationally won his major title in 2010.
And, unsurprisingly, a relaxed McDowell flourished on his return to the famous course as he finished in a tie for 16th to continue his upturn in form before heading to Royal Portrush.
From the start of The 148th Open, it was clear McDowell was going to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy every moment around the Dunluce Links in front of the sell-out crowds.
He made a solid start to his Claret Jug challenge, posting 73 and 70 in his opening two rounds to safely make the cut before ultimately finishing in a tie for 57th.
But for McDowell, the only thing that mattered was that he was there in person to witness what he described as a “phenomenal” Open after such a dramatic journey to qualify.
“For a guy who grew up here and is from the town it's amazing. I love this place and it is the realisation of a dream to have the Open Championship come back here.”