Vance Veazey, making an early move toward his first British Open
title, was 10 under par through 28 holes last Friday and only a
stroke behind tournament leader Tiger Woods, but then the claret
jug started to slip out of the 38-year-old Tennessean's hands. A
bogey on the 12th hole. A bogey at 13. On 17 Veazey missed a
short putt for par, making it even less likely that he would join
the stellar list of British Open champs that began with Willie
Park in 1860. "It's a crazy game," Veazey said after his round.
"Even when I was making birdies, things didn't feel quite right."
It felt like what it was--a hot, muggy Fourth of July in the
Chicago suburb of Lemont. But for 127 pros, last week's Western
Open was an opportunity to earn passage into next week's British
Open at Royal St. George's in Sandwich, England. Since 2001 the
Western has doubled as a British Open qualifier, making it
possible for PGA Tour players who are not already exempt to get
into the world's oldest championship without risking 10 to 15
grand on airfare, B&B's and Cadbury bars. Last year, for example,
15 players who might otherwise have played in the Greater
Milwaukee Open winged their way to Scotland instead on the
strength of four good rounds in Lemont. Four of them finished in
the top 25 at Muirfield, and one of them, Stuart Appleby, made it
into the four-man playoff won by Ernie Els.
It's no flight of fancy, then, to say that this year's British
Open began last Thursday at 7 a.m. on the 1st and 10th tees of
the Dubsdread No. 4 course at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club.
Woods, with his first-round 63, had no impact on the tournament
within a tournament (as a recent British Open champion he was
already exempt), but Veazey, at eight-under 64, was the
first-round leader in the qualifier. Veazey was an intriguing
player to watch because he had paid some serious dues to get
where he was. A two-time winner on the Nationwide tour in the
1990s, he finished 212th on the '98 PGA Tour money list and
didn't get his card back until last December, when he finished
17th at Q school. This year he missed 10 straight cuts from
February to June and arrived at the Western as the seventh
alternate, not expecting to get into the field. So if he were to
advance to Royal St. George's....
"That would be awesome," Veazey said on Friday, affable despite a
double-bogey disaster on 18 that had left him with a second-round
75. "I haven't played over there, but I'd love for my wife and me
to go." Other players were of a similar mind. "It's definitely in
my thoughts," said long-hitting Hank Kuehne. "I'm trying to play
as many courses as I can, and getting into the British Open would
be a real bonus." Olin Browne, who has never played in a British
Open despite winning twice in his decade on the PGA Tour, sounded
almost wistful. "I'm near the end of my career," said Browne, 44.
"I'd really like to play in it."
Jonathan Byrd, the Tour's rookie of the year in 2002, seemed just
as eager to hit the heather, but he pointed out that a player's
hunger to qualify could work to his detriment. "Last year I
missed qualifying by a shot, and I think it was too much on my
mind. It's like trying to simply make the cut--you usually wind
up on the number." Byrd, who got a taste of overseas golf as an
amateur at the 1999 Walker Cup in Nairn, Scotland, said he would
be on a plane to London on Wednesday night no matter how he
finished in the Western. "If I have to try to qualify in England,
I'll do it. I love playing over there." (His 50th-place finish
left qualifying as his only option.)
The irony, of course, is that most of the things that make
British golf lovable--brisk sea breezes, mighty dunes, firm
fairways, the smell of fish and chips--are in short supply in
northern Illinois. Veazey ran into more trouble on the 18th on
Friday because he drove his ball into thick green rough (nothing
like the yellow, seed-topped stuff on a seaside course) behind a
tree (a rarity on a links) and wound up hitting his third into a
greenside pond (a farm feature).
"I think I prefer the old system of qualifying," said Rod
Pampling, who got into the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie by
virtue of his standing on the Australasian tour's money list. By
the old system he meant the pre-2001 setup, which required
nonexempt golfers to vie for an Open slot in a 36-hole shootout
on one of four British courses a few days before the Open,
typically in drenching rain and stiff winds in front of galleries
made up of retired Army colonels and grandmums pushing prams.
"That's the deal, isn't it?" said Pampling. "You do the hard
yards in the tough conditions to get through."
The hard yards are still an option. About two dozen players will
get to Royal St. George's via qualifiers in England on July 13
and 14, and no one will be surprised if a PGA Tour player or two
is among their number. There is no rule against double-dipping,
trying to qualify in Chicago and, failing there, trying again at,
say, Royal Cinque Ports. "I like the present system because it
gives me an extra chance to get into my home Open," says young
Luke Donald, 25, who lives in Chicago but hails from Hempstead,
England. Last year Donald failed to qualify at the Western but
succeeded at Dunbar, a quaint but challenging Scottish course
crisscrossed by stone walls.
The principal criticism of the current qualifying system is that
it requires a mainframe computer to calculate all the possible
permutations. Of the 98 players already exempt for the third
major championship of 2003--former Open champions, the top 15
finishers and ties from the 2002 British Open, the winner of the
2002 U.S. Amateur, if still an amateur, etc.--29 were in the
Western Open field. After completion of play on Sunday, seven
more players had qualified for the British because they had the
highest standing among 25 nonexempt players on a separate money
list, pegged to the 2003 Players Championship and five other
approved events leading up to and including the Western Open. In
addition, the top eight finishers in Chicago, not otherwise
exempt, qualified (chart, left). Even more players will get their
tickets to the British at alternative sites next year, when five
additional qualifiers will be held worldwide, including one in
the U.S., at Congressional, near Washington, D.C.
If there had been one more category--Wants It Most--Tour rookie
John E. Morgan would have qualified. Morgan, the son of a
Portishead dockworker, is a free spirit who was dropped from the
English Youth team some years ago because he imitated Happy
Gilmore on the practice range, hit balls from his knees and
generally played the team jester. "I guess I made things worse by
showing up drunk at the Sherry Cup awards dinner in Sotogrande,"
Morgan says, "but I think I deserved better treatment."
Getting into the British Open for the first time would be sweet,
Morgan says, because it would show his detractors in the English
Golf Union that they were wrong about him. Unfortunately the
Portishead lad shot 72-73 at Cog Hill and missed the cut by two
strokes. ("I played as if I were going to qualify. I just
couldn't putt," he says.) Morgan will play in Milwaukee this week
because he needs to improve his standing on the U.S. money list
to keep his Tour card. "I'm O.K. with it," he said of his failure
to advance. In the meantime he dreams of the day when he will tee
off in the British Open for the first time as a prodigal son.
"It'll be great to see some of the old buggers who ignored me."
Donald, the other hopeful Brit at the Western, had a happier
result. He shot a final-round 69 and then waited out a Sunday
rain delay, biting his lip--"Not much I can do now," he said--but
qualified with a stroke to spare. Tour veteran Duffy Waldorf, who
made it to Muirfield last year thanks to a good Chicago showing,
advanced again by finishing third on the special money list.
"Qualifying over there is tough," said Waldorf. "I'm glad we can
do it here."
Veazey, sad to say, shot weekend rounds of 78-73 and wound up 10
strokes shy of the magic number. When he hit his last approach
shot, into the 9th green, technicians had already dismantled
their TV camera and were lowering it by pulley from the scaffold.
"Granted, it wasn't the finish I wanted," Veazey said, walking
through the gathering dusk toward the clubhouse, "but my game's
showing signs of improvement and I can build on that. I now know
that I can shoot 64 on a good course." Asked if he and his
kindergarten-teacher wife could afford to fly to England on spec,
he shook his head. "But there's always next year."
He grinned. "Who knows? Someday I might win the thing!"
He meant the British thing.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER DOUBLE DIP Donald, 13th at the Western to gain entry to the British Open, needed two qualifiers a year ago.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' Morgan missed out on an opportunity to redeem himself in his homeland.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER SOME DAY....Veazey preferred to focus on a first-round 64 instead of the 78-73 weekend that kept him out of the Open.
EAST MEETS WESTERN
HERE ARE the 15 players who qualified for next week's British
Open based on their play at the Western Open, along with their
finishes at Cog Hill.
TOP EIGHT NOT OTHERWISE EXEMPT
1. Dudley Hart T8th
2. Scott McCarron 12th
3. Skip Kendall 13th
4. Ben Curtis 13th
5. Luke Donald 13th
6. Jose Coceres 19th
7. Chris Smith 19th
8. Tom Byrum 19th
NONEXEMPT MONEY LIST
9. Cliff Kresge T6th
10. Jonathan Kaye DNP
11. Rory Sabbatini CUT
12. Duffy Waldorf 37th
13. Joey Sindelar 30th
14. Joe Durant CUT
15. J.L. Lewis 43rd
Morgan, the prodigal son, says it would "be great to see some of
the old buggers who ignored me" at an Open.