In the Trophy Room of the Royal and Ancient clubhouse, the qualifier from Texas lit one Marlboro after another as he leaned against a painting of golfers playing the Old Course in 1850. Just outside on this Sunday evening along St. Andrews Bay, John Daly appeared to be on the verge of winning the 124th British Open in regulation. But the impending celebration was of little interest to Mark Brooks.
Funny how expectations change. Just one week earlier, the 34-year-old Brooks, a 12-year veteran of the PGA Tour, would have been happy simply to be a part of the British Open. Now he was agonizing over a 70th-hole tee shot that might have cost him a place in golf history.
Brooks was only two strokes off the lead when he came to the 16th hole, a 382-yard par-4 called Corner of the Dyke. With a 30-mph wind blowing from right to left, Brooks ignored his caddie's suggestion that he use a one-iron and instead pulled out his driver. His tee shot bounded into the mouth of the Deacon Sime bunker, and from that hole in the Scottish earth, Brooks would make double bogey. He finished one stroke out of the playoff between Daly and Costantino Rocca.
By the time Daly was walking up the 18th hole as Open champion, Brooks was back at the small flat he had rented on North Street. His two young daughters, Lyndsay and Hollie, still had no idea how close Dad had come to hoisting the claret jug.
Brooks's championship run was unique. His qualifying experience was not. A field of 480, including Brooks and 13 other PGA Tour pros, went after the last 49 spots in the British Open by competing in the Open's final qualification stage—a 36-hole test at four courses within 15 miles of St. Andrews. Brooks flew over a week ahead of the July 16-17 qualifying dates with his family, played Turnberry, Prestwick, Western Gailes and Royal County Down to get a feel for links golf, then set the course record with a 65 at Ladybank Golf Club in the opening round of qualifying. With a 70 in the second round, he finished one shot back of fellow Texan Justin Leonard, who was medalist at Ladybank with rounds of 68-66. Brooks and Leonard were two of 12 players to qualify for the Open at that site.
While other nonexempt Americans took the week off or played the Deposit Guaranty Classic in Madison, Miss., Brooks and Leonard considered it an obligation to fly across the Atlantic and attempt to qualify. "If you're among the top 125 players," Brooks said, "you need to pack your bags and try it."
Because both grew up playing in the Texas winds, Brooks in Fort Worth and Leonard in Dallas, links golf suits their games. Brooks qualified for his first Open at Royal Birkdale in 1991. Last year at Turnberry, he came within one shot of finishing in the top 15 and getting an exemption to St. Andrews. He was determined to return, even if the trip turned into nothing more than a family vacation. "I love playing over here," he said after the 65 at Ladybank. "It's actually harder for me to adjust my game for the U.S. Tour. I get really disappointed when I go to a new course and see nothing but water. You see our scores in the States: When the wind blows, the scores go sky-high because the courses aren't made to be played in heavy winds. When it blows 30 miles an hour, there's nowhere to put it on the ground and play shots."
The hazards in Scotland are the bunkers, and Leonard found enough of them on the weekend at St. Andrews to shoot 77-77. That spoiled all the good work he had accomplished in the first two days, when rounds of 73-67 put him at four under, just two strokes off the lead. An early tee time allowed Leonard to watch second-round afternoon play from his room at the Scores Hotel. It also gave him an opportunity to reflect on the time he traveled to St. Andrews as a 14-year-old, playing the Old Course with his father and a new set of clubs. When his drive at the 18th stopped on the gravel of Grannie Clark's Wynd (the road that runs across the 1st and 18th fairways), Leonard erroneously took a drop and was admonished by his caddie. "My father and I both hit it into the Valley of Sin," Leonard recalled. "I chipped and he putted, and we both made par."
Such are the beauties and idiosyncrasies of links golf, but the hardpan turf and funny bounces are two of the big reasons that more PGA Tour pros don't consider qualifying. Only seven made it through this year. An eighth, Don Pooley, lost a playoff at Leven Links but received the final spot in the field when another American, Kenny Perry, withdrew on Wednesday night. "I know it's difficult to make it," said Gary Hallberg, who did, then finished 68th in the Open, "but you've got to try if you love golf and love the history of golf."
Brian Claar had the most adventuresome route into this year's Open. With three holes remaining at Scotscraig Golf Club, Claar figured he had no chance of qualifying. But a birdie-birdie-birdie finish put him in a five-way playoff. After surviving the first three holes with par putts of 15, eight and seven feet, he added two more birdies to grab the final spot.