By Kent Gray
Zane Scotland’s body, as ever, holds the reality card but it doesn’t stop the MENA Tour ace from dreaming of a return to the scene of his historic Open Championship debut next week.
Scotland was just 16 when he became the youngest English player to qualify for The Open at Carnoustie in 1999. Fast-forward 19 years and the Middle East and North Africa developmental circuit’s most decorated player is through to final qualifying for the 147th edition of the oldest major which returns to the toughest of The Open rota’s 10 venues on Thursday week.
Now 35 and battling back from another one of the injuries that have plagued his career, Scotland will tee it up at St Annes Old Links with 71 others on Wednesday chasing one of three spots in the field for Carnoustie. There are a total of 12 spots up for grabs across four (36-hole) final qualifiers and further MENA Tour interest in the performance of Yas Links-attached Luke Joy at Prince’s and Stuart Archibald at Notts (Hollinwell). The other qualifier is being staged at The Renaissance Club.
That Scotland (Woodcote Park) has tempered expectations but high hopes is entirely understandable. His career has been blighted by injury set-backs ever since he was involved in a minor car accident in the early 2000s which led to major and on-going neck problems.
He’s played the Open twice despite the challenges, beginning with the blur that was the 128th Open at Carnoustie, won by Paul Lawrie but remembered for the playoff meltdown of the Frenchman, Jean Van de Velde.
Scotland carded rounds of 82-81 to finish T-135, no disgrace given he was a shot behind eventual 2009 winner Stewart Cink and shot better than 1963 champion Sir Bob Charles.
The experience made him doubly determined when he made it back to the Open in 2010, the year Louis Oosthuizen won at St Andrews. Scotland was determined to make the weekend on the Old Course and did so, rounds of 70-74-72-70 seeing him finish T-55 in the 139th edition alongside Steve Stricker.
“The two were real contrasts really,” Scotland said of his Open experiences. “The first time, no real expectations, wasn’t spose to be there, was just a kid, my friends were there, soaked it all up, brilliant.
“Second time around I was into my professional career, had to make it happen. I probably remember more from my second one in terms of the golf because I really wanted to make the cut and play with a big player at the weekend which I did, I got to play with Steve Stricker who was super nice.”
Two players from Scotland’s increasingly successful Zane Scotland Academy – the MENA Tour-bound Louis Hirst (who progressed with a T-1 finish at regional qualifying at Burhill) and Jack Yule – are also through to final qualifying and have understandably pressed the old guy for some tips.
“My guys have asked me for my opinion, how do you approach Open qualifying, what is it like? What I’ve said is enjoy the buzz, there’s three spots from a 100 odd guys, or 80 guys or whatever it is, so it’s not an easy task, and therefore, just relax,” Scotland said.
“There’s going to be a lot of nerves, everyone is thinking about being in The Open before they’re even there so my advice to those guys is just relax, string two rounds together, do what you do.
“I think a lot of guys go in thinking they’ve got to shoot the lights out but actually, two decent rounds and you’ll be there or thereabouts, you haven’t got to go mad. If you make a couple of bogeys, don’t lose hope because you could make four of five birdies in six or seven holes and you are right in there.
“There’s a lot of panic playing. If you can just try and keep your head, and play pretty steady, it leaves you with a little chance.”
As for Scotland’s own expectations of a third Open start, well, they’re muted.
“I have quite low expectations. I’m still recovering from my injury, still trying to work out how I am going to get through four rounds if I did qualify, so they’re pretty low,” he said.
“I’ve played one event since the MENA Tour last season, a week long Pro-Am at Sawgrass where I actually went really well in, won that. When I have been playing, I have been going quite nicely which is great but at this level you’ve got to be really sharp.
“So I’m looking forward to having a go. I’m just going there to enjoy the buzz, there’s a real buzz at final Open qualifying, the leaderboard is being watched like a hawk by locals, club members and players, caddies, family, you know, who is shooting what which adds a tenseness to it.
“I love that tense atmosphere, the anticipation of three of us being at the Open.”
Scotland is off at 8.10am local time (11.10am UAE time) in his opening round at St Annes. Joy tees it up an hour earlier at Prince’s, 10 minutes before Hirst while Archibald has a 1.05pm (UAE time) start at Notts. Yule is paying at Prince’s from 11.25am UAE time.