Date: December 01, 2013
Author: John Huggan at Royal Sydney Golf Club

Huggan: Next stop Hoylake

as basically a good idea, one that, on paper at least, made perfect sense. And it was clearly done with the best of intentions: to ensure the deepest and most cosmopolitan fields for the game’s oldest major, the Open Championship.

But it wasn’t working. Not in Australia anyway. Ever since the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews introduced 36-hole “International Qualifying” tournaments across the globe, the Aussie version – held each January – conspicuously failed to identify too many players capable of making the halfway cut, never mind contending for the Old Claret Jug. In the last three years, for example, the world ranking positions of the qualifiers ranged from 366 to 1204.

Not surprisingly perhaps, those numbers led to an equally disappointing level of performance six months later in the UK. Over the course of a decade, a total of 35 players made it through to the Open from ten Australian IQ events hosted by either Kingston Heath in Melbourne or The Lakes in Sydney. Of those 35, only four subsequently made it through to the weekend in the championship proper. And the top-finisher from that quartet, former US Amateur champion Nick Flanagan, could manage only a T-23 at St. Andrews in 2005.

Such a dismal level of “success” – 11 percent of qualifiers making the cut – had long made the long-term future of the IQs tenuous at best. And for next year’s Open at Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) the R&A decided to go a different route and use a series of events across the world as pseudo qualifying tournaments.

In the United States, the AT&T National, the Greenbrier Classic and the John Deere Classic will offer up a total of nine places. In Europe, the French, Irish and Scottish Opens, plus four “final qualifying events” have been allocated a total of 21 spots. And a further 14 starts will result from events in Australia, South Africa, Japan and Thailand.

The first of those, however, is the Australian Open, from which the leading three players from the top-ten finishers (not already exempt for the Open) are guaranteed to tee-up at Hoylake.
All of which makes sense. Testing a player’s mettle over 72-holes of stroke-play in a national championship is surely more likely to throw up a better class of qualifier than a one-day, two-round “sprint.” That’s the theory anyway. But it remains to be seen if it will be a long-term success. Statistically at least, two of the three qualifiers currently boast world-rankings in the region of the 1,000-mark.

From a starting “field” of 152 at Royal Sydney – Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Jason Day and Kevin Streelman were already exempt for Hoylake – the three men who will journey to England next July are John Senden (world ranking 125), Rhein Gibson (998) and Bryden Macpherson (1007).

Senden, Aussie Open champion at Royal Sydney back in 2006 finished a distant third behind Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott; Macpherson and Gibson tied for fourth a shot further back. Narrowly missing out was Aussie Matt Jones, the world number 102. Needing a birdie on the final hole to deprive Macpherson, the Sydney native failed narrowly from 15-feet.

Senden, one of only a handful of men who can boast full-exempt status on the PGA Tour for the last 12 years, already has well-established credentials. Macpherson is a former British Amateur champion who already has Open Championship experience – he missed the cut in 2011 at Royal St. Georges. And Gibson, despite his lowly ranking, does have one rather startling claim to fame. In May 2012, in a casual round with friends at the River Oaks Country Club in Edmond, Oklahoma, the Sydney native – who intends to compete on the One-Asia circuit in 2014 – completed the 18-holes in a remarkable 55-shots, 16-under par.

It remains to be seen they will fare at Hoylake. One thing is for sure though. The R&A will be watching closely.