Adam Scott made it look easy. The brilliant young Australian pro turned up at Renfrew, Scotland, three Mondays ago, looking like a million bucks and swatting 350-yard drives as easily as he might lick a stamp. Scott shot 65 in British Open regional qualifying and advanced to a two-round competition at Leven Links, in Fife-shire, where last week he shot nine under par before a gallery of children, dog walkers, pipe smokers and bicyclists. Scott beat 52-to-1 odds to, as they say in Britain, go through to St. Andrews.
Robert Huxtable made it look hard. The 35-year-old Asian tour veteran from Palm Springs, Calif.—exempt from regional qualifying but still braving 11-to-1 odds and a travel bill of about $5,000—went twice around Leven Links in four-under 138, impressing his Scottish caddie but failing to go through. "He's a gent, an absolute gent," said the caddie, Neil Ogston of St. Andrews. "A good player, too. He should have scored much lower, but he missed a lot of putts."
Fred Sutton made it look impossible. The 26-year-old mini-tour pro from Victorville, Calif., surfed the Internet to select a regional qualifying site—he chose Burnham-on-Sea, a brown-water resort village south of Bristol, England—and then flew from Los Angeles on a frequent-flier ticket, arriving in London less than 72 hours before his 8 a.m. tee time. Sutton's drive on the 1st hole of the Burnham & Berrow Golf Club, into a 40-mph wind, fell like a wounded puffin after 190 yards. He went on to encounter horizontal rain, blowing sand, knee-high rough and wild-eyed spectators wrestling with tattered umbrellas. "I wanted to experience links golf," Sutton said after shooting an 86, his highest score as a pro. "I had no idea."
That's British Open qualifying for you. Roughly three fourths of the 156 players who teed it up last week at St. Andrews got into the field through one of the 28 categories of exemptions. Any other golfer wanting to play in the millennial Open had to show proof that he was either a member of a recognized tournament pro's organization or, if an amateur, had a handicap of scratch or better; pay an entry fee of $137; and bring his A game to one or, in most cases, two qualifying tournaments. This year 2,290 golfers played at 21 regional and final qualifying sites to fill 44 positions in the Open field.
Sutton, not knowing any better, asked to play in Somerset, a county famous for clotted cream and deer stalking. "We're probably the least popular qualifying site," said Mark Crowther-Smith, head pro at Burnham & Berrow. "We're on an estuary, and sometimes the wind howls." The 380-yard 1st hole, for instance, has been driven, "but you can't sniff it with two woods when the wind comes up," said Crowther-Smith.
Sure enough, squalls from off the Bristol Channel pummeled Burnham & Barrow on July 10, the day of regional qualifying. On the practice range the long hitters watched in dismay as their drives gathered like a milk mustache just beyond the 175-yard sign. It was even worse out on the dunes. Lee Corfield, a young amateur who had recently shot 64 on the course, had an 89 and reported that his threesome took 27 shots at the par-4 16th—a 13, a 10 and a four. "The conditions were horrendous," said David Dixon, a Walker Cup candidate and the current Lytham Trophy holder. He walked off with a 79. "Really horrendous," echoed European tour irregular David Ray, who also shot 79. "I've been beaten up badly."
Crowther-Smith smiled wanly upon hearing that several players couldn't reach the fairway on the 6th hole. "With the benefit of hindsight," he said, "we could have moved the tees up a bit."
This being England, they could have moved the teas up a bit as well. There was a Frenchman, an Australian, a Zimbabwean and a Swede at Burnham & Berrow; otherwise the field was veddy British, hailing from Wodehousean locales such as Chipping Norton, Broome Manor and Puckrup Hall, Lyme Regis and Frilford Heath, Pontypool and Coed-y-Mwstwr, Wales. Sutton's caddie, 17-year-old Californian Johann Emanuel, looked at the photos of Victorian and Edwardian golfers on the clubhouse walls and said, "This course is older than some of our states!"
On this day, unfortunately for Sutton, the qualifier turned into the Mother Nature Invitational. The best score of the morning was 79, by Michael O'Connor and left-hander Stuart Little, a Gloucester pro regarded as the best player in southwest England. There were many scores in the upper 80s and 90s and 18 N/Rs—for card not returned, the British equivalent of withdrew. "The guys behind us all walked off," said Sutton.
In the afternoon the scores descended about an octave, in tune with the pitch of the wind. Alun Evans of Garnant Park earned the $600 first prize with a 74, and 10 other players went through with scores of 79 or better. Little, whose 79 in the morning was the equivalent of a fair-weather 65, failed to win an assured spot. He did, however, get an alternate's slot in a nine-player playoff at day's end, when the sun made a brief, dramatic appearance on the horizon. At 16 other qualifying courses, including sites in Scotland and Ireland, 222 more long shots advanced to final qualifying.