For the first time since 2011 – and for the fifteenth time since it first joined the currently 10-strong “rota” of courses in 1894 – the Open Championship is returning to the Kent links of Royal St. George’s next year.
In turn, the field for what will be the 149th playing of golf’s oldest and most important event is going to include the now two-time Emirates Australian Open champion Matt Jones, Aaron Pike and Takumi Kanaya. They were the top-three finishers (not already exempt for the Open) inside the top-10 at the 104th edition of Australia’s national Open.
The championship – the fourth-oldest in the game – was the first of the “Open Qualifying Series,” 13 events played across the PGA Tour, European Tour, PGA Tour of Australasia, the Asian Tour, the Sunshine Tour and the Japan Tour that will identify as many as 46 players over the next few months.
For Pike, the 848th-ranked player in the world, a trip to jolly old England will double as his Open Championship debut. Kanaya – the number-one amateur on the planet – has played once before as the Asian-Pacific Amateur champion, missing the halfway cut at Royal Portrush earlier this year. His spot at Royal St. George’s is guaranteed too. No matter what.
Even if the 21-year old Japanese turns professional between now and next July, he will not lose the spot he earned by shooting nine-under par for 72-holes and finishing T-3 alongside Pike at The Australian club.
“The Open is the biggest tournament in the world for me,” said a clearly delighted Pike. “It is. It’s as simple as that. It’ll be amazing to play in it. I knew going into the last day I was running top-10, so I had that idea in my head. On the 16th I saw a board and realised that Louis (Oosthuizen) would already be in and Matty Jones was definitely going to take a spot – he wasn’t going to finish with five doubles. So I knew I had to put my foot down. The birdie I made on 17 was massive.”
Kanaya was a little more understated after holing from six-feet on the last green to clinch his spot, but nevertheless pleased to guarantee himself a second trip to one of golf’s most historic venues.
“I feeling so great, so excited,” he said in delightfully broken English that nevertheless conveyed his thoughts beautifully. “I haven’t been St George’s but I can’t wait to the Open next year. Open is tough conditions, so windy, rainy, sometimes switching, so very difficult. I prepare perfect so I look forward to British Open. On last I was seeing leaderboard. I make putt, so I joining an Open, so, so nervous. “
In contrast, Jones is an old hand at this Open qualifying lark. Twice before he has gained entry through the Emirates Australian Open, when he claimed his first Stonehaven Cup in 2015, then again two years later when he finished tied for second behind Cameron Davis. Next year will be the Sydney-native’s fifth Open start in all, his best finish so far T-30 at St. Andrews in 2015.
“I’ve played in maybe five (make that four) Opens and it’s the one major I would most like to win,” said Jones, who typically plies his trade on the PGA Tour. “To qualify and be able to plan a schedule around it is brilliant.
“I love coming back here because it’s a great chance for me to make the Open. I’ve been lucky enough to do it a few times and now I’ll be back there next year. Hopefully I don’t have to do it again here next year. But I’ll be back if I have to.”
Still, it is to be hoped that this latest batch of qualifiers fare better than their immediate predecessors. The 2017 Emirates Australian Open champion, Davis, finished T-39 at Carnoustie eight months later, while both Jonas Blixt and Jones comfortably missed the halfway cut. 2018 was even worse. Last year’s Emirates Australian Open champion, Abraham Ancer of Mexico, and fellow qualifiers Dimitrios Papadatos and Jake McLeod all failed to qualify for the weekend at Portrush.
Indeed, since the “OQS” began in 2013, no player identified by the Emirates Australian Open has gone on to finish inside the top-25 at the Open. As many as 11 have now failed to make it through 36-holes, with Aaron Baddeley’s T-27 finish at Royal Birkdale in 2016 still the best result recorded by any of the 18 previous qualifiers.
All in all, things can only get better.