By Kent Gray
There are mouth-watering storylines at every turn. Can Rory McIlroy ride the emotional rollercoaster of being the home favourite at Royal Portrush? Will Brooks Koepka keep his remarkable 1-2-1-2 streak in the majors rolling and hoist the claret jug for the first time? Can Tiger Woods defy father time, (chilly) mother nature and four back surgeries and get back on the express train to Nicklaus-ville with a 16th big?
Indeed, thumb through the tee times for the first two rounds of the 148th Open Championship and there is intrigue everywhere. Surely Rickie Fowler is due a major? Maybe it’s time for recent Dubai Duty Free Irish Open champion Jon Rahm, Omega Dubai Desert Classic champion Bryson DeChambeau or even two-time Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship winner Tommy Fleetwood? On and on it goes…
Two names the uninitiated might skip over are those of Englishman Matthew Baldwin and Curtis Knipes. But for followers of the MENA Tour, qualifying for the final major of the year is a huge achievement for the tour and the current leaders of the regional development circuit’s professional and amateur Order-of-Merit races.
At 18, Knipes is the youngest of the six amateurs chasing the silver medal for low amateur honours at Royal Portrush. Scotsman Sam Locke achieved that momentous honour with a +9 score at Carnoustie last July and given the forecast for Co Antrim, something similar could get the job done for the amateurs this week.
Knipes, ranked no 353 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), is teeing it up in his first major championship are after earning medallist honours at final qualifying at Prince’s in Kent. He is taking a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude into his opening round Thursday where he’ll tee it up alongside Finn Mikko Korhonen and Englishman Oliver Wilson at 11.47am (UAE time).
But don’t think the Chelmsford teen, who is eye the European Tour Q-School at the end of the year, doesn’t have longterm ambitions.
“It is a very proud moment of my career and I am very excited to be here this week,” Knipes told MENA Tour media boss Joy Chakravarty who is onsite at Royal Portrush. “I have come this far, and I want to keep on pushing. I want to be here every year. I don’t want this to be my only one to make it memorable for myself.
“I played decently in the qualifiers, but I thought I showed great attitude really. My caddie, Josh Reid, was a big help. I played with a nothing-to-lose mindset really.
“And that is the mindset I hope to bring to this week once again. I have thought about it and I really have got nothing to lose. I am here now, so I have got to enjoy the experience. If I play well, that is just going to be a bonus.”
Knipes says his rookie campaign on the MENA Tour played an important role in him getting to Royal Portrush, a layout where he reached the final 16 of the 2016 British Boys’ Amateur Championship.
“Those six-odd weeks on the MENA Tour were great. It taught me so much about myself, and about professional golf in particular. I will say to everyone that it is so worth doing, and it was such great preparation for the season as well.”
Knipes enjoyed some practice holes in the company of Masters champion Sergio Garcia and Fleetwood at Portrush on Sunday, a moment he described as “very cool”.
“I just tried to pick their brains a little bit and also got to see how they went about their business from up close,” he said. “I was quite nervous. I was hoping to get a practice round with some of the bigger names just to get used to the crowd and settle down a little bit, which I think I have. I found out that they were normal guys who just happen to be very good at golf.
“I have a good idea of the golf course and it has danger on both sides on most holes. So, it will be an advantage if you are driving the ball well and if you can shape it both ways.”
Knipes’ rivals for the silver medal are newly crowned British Amateur champion James Sugrue (Ireland), Japan’s Takumi Kanaya, German Matthias Schmid, Sussex’s Thomas Thurloway and U.S. 22-year-old Brandon Wu. Wu is currently ranked No.5 in the WAGR, Kanaya No.2.
Baldwin, meanwhile, has set himself the goal of simply enjoying his fifth major championship start after a rollercoaster year.
The 33-year-old from Southport started the season in blistering form winning the MENA Tour’s B Stage Q-School and Journey to Jordan-1, the opening event of the 10-event schedule. However, he’s struggling in his bid to regain European Tour status with three missed cuts and just one top-15 finish (Challenge de Espana) in seven Challenge Tour starts so far.
“I am here to enjoy my week. I know I have a job to turn my season around,” said Baldwin who finished third in final qualifying at St Anne’s and is off at 2.15pm UAE time in his opening round Thursday alongside Thai 34-year-old Prom Meesawat and England’s Jack Senior.
“The MENA Tour was great for me but it would have been better if I had fired on from there. I don’t think there is anything wrong with my game. I am just getting frustrated, to be honest. I feel like my golf is good enough to be playing on the European Tour, but when you are playing the Challenge Tour and hitting the occasional bad shots, it does become frustrating for me. I feel like I should be doing better and I end up compounding errors with errors.
“I just need to enjoy my golf, and hopefully, that is what we are going to do this week. I am a qualifier and not exempt like many of the other guys. So, let’s see where this goes.”
Baldwin finished T-44 at the 2012 Irish Open in his last competitive visit to Royal Portrush. Changes to the layout since then have been a challenge but he knows he has what it takes to compete this week.
“The biggest thing for me would be not to beat myself up for hitting one or two poor shots here and there. I know I can do well…there’s really no reason why I can’t. I played a practice round on Monday with Tony Finau and six holes with Phil Mickelson. They are world-class players obviously, but watching them, they do not hit it any better than most of us in the field.”
“It’s my fifth major. It’s great to qualify, but this is the reason we play golf – end of the day we all want to be playing the biggest tournaments in the world and for me, and for every other British lad, this is the biggest tournament in the world.”