Public Access: The Old Course

By Mercer BaggsJune 10, 2010, 9:03 pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – The look on his face said more to his disappointment than the one-word, four-letter expletive he tried to keep under his breath, but let get caught in the morning breeze.

It is 6:30 a.m., a half-hour before the first scheduled tee time, and there are already 17 people ahead of Tim Powell.

“Guess I’ll get here earlier tomorrow,” he says.

Andrew and Stephen Reyes were advised to show up before 5:30 in the morning. The brothers obliged, but were still fifth and sixth, respectively.

In the ultimate spot of envy for this crowd is Mark Baldwin, a soon-to-be 50-year-old and 9-handicap from Richmond, Va.

It took a 2:30 a.m. wake-up call, a 3 o’clock leave of absence from his wife, and a 4:20 arrival for him to earn his position at the front of the line.

His prize for such diligence? The best possible chance among the wanting group to play the Old Course at St. Andrews.

“It is THE course I always dreamed of playing,” Baldwin says. “It’s not like I’m getting on Augusta.”

The Old Course is golf’s most venerable venue. It’s birthplace. Aged over 600 years, walked or won on by nearly every legend the game has ever produced.

For the first time in major championship history, three of the four majors will be contested on public courses: Pebble Beach Golf Links (U.S. Open), the Old Course at St. Andrews (Open Championship) and the Straits Course at Whistling Straits (PGA Championship).

It might require a bit of savings, but if you can afford the cost and make the time, all three golfing landmarks are accessible to everyone.

As for the Old Course (greens fee runs roughly $175), a phone call or click of a computer button can book an advanced tee time. There is also the daily ballot, a simple process which allows groups of 2-4 to enter an on-site lottery system where names are drawn to fill out the following day’s tee sheet.

If the lottery fails you, forethought is not your forte, or you are a single golfer, there is yet another option:  Get in line (and get there early).

When ballots are pulled, the tee time is granted to whoever is on the card. If that’s two players, then only two players are listed. That leaves a couple of open spots and the possibility for two 11th-hour singles to join – if the original group complies.

Groups have the right to say no. For instance, a threesome consisting of family members might not want to take the chance of adding a possible 18-hole yapper.

Monday, May 24, there are 12 open slots on the tee sheet. Once the starter arrives, at 6:38 a.m., he tells hopefuls that number is more of a false front; it’s closer to nine.

“There is an indication on the ballot if groups are receptive (to add-ons),” says Old Course starter James Johnson.

Russ Tobias, a 54-year-old research and development director for Kodak, was in Birmingham, England for a conference when he decided to fly to Edinburgh and make the subsequent trip to St. Andrews.

“I had to,” says the 5-handicap from Dayton, Ohio. “I couldn’t come all this way and not play the Home of Golf.”

Tobias showed up at 4:30 a.m., about 10 minutes after Baldwin, and stands second in line. Behind him are Rob Noble and Jim Eichenberg.

A resident of Brisbane, Australia, a 22-handicap and 60-year-old semi-retired business consultant, Noble was on his way to Paris to celebrate his wife’s 60th birthday with family and friends when he made a planned pit stop at the Old Course.

“My father played here in 1977,” Noble tells. “It was a bit of a dream come true for him, and kind of became a dream of mine.”

Like Noble, Eichenberg has never played the Old Course. Only six months removed from divorce, the 41-year-old sales rep from Las Vegas decided to begin a quest to play his “bucket list of courses.”

“No better place to start than here,” says Eichenberg, a 13-handicap, who won a sales contest for five nights at any Fairmont hotel and chose, without hesitation, the locale in St. Andrews.

“I’m proof that even a hack can get a chance to play a course like this.”

Adds Tobias, “It’s great to watch on TV and follow your heroes, but what a thrill to play the courses that they play.

“Golf should never exclude the public.”

With 18 people anxiously waiting in line, the starter takes names and handicaps, putting them on a numerical list and telling some to hang around and others to check in later.

Baldwin relays his information and then makes a hasty exit off course premises. For all his doggedness, he is still in need of one thing:  golf clubs.

After renting a set of Callaways, he returns and is soon greeted with that which he has so desired:  a 7:20 a.m. tee time on the Old Course.

Mike Amrine and two of his fellow servicemen from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany have graciously allowed Baldwin to make their group a foursome.

“It’s golf,” says Amrine, a 45-year-old 19-handicap. “The more the merrier.”

Hitting clean-up in the third group out this morning, Baldwin stands over his ball facing 200 yards worth of horizontal fairway and nary a heavy eye on him.

Yet the pressure is palpable. After the second striker hooks his drive into the adjoining 18th fairway, he walks back to his friends and says, “My hand was shaking putting my tee in the ground.”

Baldwin’s tee shot barely clears land on takeoff and races down a straight line to the green, kicking up dew in its wake.

He exhales a deep breath, smiles, looks over and says simply, “Unbelievable.”

Shortly thereafter, Tobias and Noble are granted entry into the 7:50 slot.

“I can’t wait to tell my wife,” Noble says giddily, before scurrying off to the putting area near the first tee for some final preparation.

While others on the waiting list, like Eichenberg and the brothers Reyes, stick around to see if they get the call, Craig and Kayli Wicker head back to their hotel.

The father-daughter duo was 14th and 15th in line, and after checking back with the starter around 9:30, they are told their chances of playing the Old Course are “bleak.”

They kindly ask the man in charge to phone their hotel should circumstances change, and then go to nearby Balcomie Links for a last-minute, 10:10 a.m. tee time.

Kayli is a 21-year-old rising senior on the women’s golf team at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. She’s a 2-handicap, while her father, 52, is a 10.

Craig is paying off a bet to his daughter for earning her first collegiate top 10.

“The bet was for Scotland,” Kayli says. “I told him as long as we play the Old Course and Carnoustie, you can pick the rest.”

The last time Kayli won a bet like this was the first time she beat her dad. The reward:  a trip to Pebble Beach, where she played on July 27, 2004 – her 16th birthday.

Kayli, who is studying abroad this summer in Paris and London, has never played the Old Course; Craig has. When he did, he came home with plenty of stories for his daughter.

“I threw a hissy fit,” she says of her reaction.

The two already have a scheduled tee time for Carnoustie on Wednesday. If they don’t make it on the Old Course this day, and don’t win the lottery for the next, they have a plan:  “Be first in line [Tuesday],” says Kayli.

After shooting 73 to a par of 68 at Balcomie, Kayli enjoys a lunch of fish and chips with her father.

The two return to their hotel about 5 p.m., where they are informed the starter has called with a possible two-ball opening at 5:40, the last tee time of the day.

“We raced down the street and checked in,” Kayli later wrote via e-mail. “It seemed like forever before the other two players arrived and we were introduced. They were very gracious and agreed to let us play.

“I was going to get to play the Old Course!!!”

Amped with adrenaline, Kayli and her father have no issues walking another 18 holes. They aren’t able to procure caddies this late in the day, but one of their playing companions is a local.

“He was able to give us some of the history of the course and tell stories about various holes or bunkers, and the events that happened during prior Opens. That really added to the round,” Kayli said.

A par on the famous Road Hole 17th is the highlight of Kayli’s 75 on the Old Course.

That, along with playing the world’s most famous course with her father, an experience on offer to anyone and everyone who has the dream and the desire to make it happen.

“It’s amazing, just standing on the first tee and realizing who has walked here,” Craig said. “And that you can play the same course as the game’s all-time greats.”

“It was,” Kayli said, “a truly magical journey.”

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.