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Fourth Zimbabwean qualifier, and falsehood of old men

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JOHN KELLEY

NEWPORT on Rhodes Island, United States, is part of the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Connecticut “Shangri-la” with its famous Yacht Club and multi-million-dollar houses scattered around the harbour’s shores.

I was there in September 2011, staying at the Yankee Peddler hotel with my wife Barbara, when two aircraft were flown by terrorists into the twin World Trade Centre skyscraper less than 200 kilometres away.

Three or four days later we took an Amtrack train down to Philadelphia to visit friends and passed close to the smouldering ruins in New York.

Our friends lived close to a university and I took a walk through the extensive sports grounds, passing a noisy football practice session before coming to a large building. This was the joint clubhouse of the university cricket club on one side and golf club on the other. Adorning it was a three-metre-high statue of a Red Indian chief in full warrior regalia.

Sitting on a bench enjoying the sunshine were three old men. I was warmly greeted. We chatted and I remarked about the state of the nine-hole course, which looked more like a military tank training ground. Such was its terrible condition, clearly caused by neglect.

They told me proudly that it was the location site of the very first US Open Championship in 1912. Also that a certain Nick Price was due shortly to give an exhibition and some lessons. Had I heard of him?

They apparently had me down for an ignorant tourist and I assumed that they did not know it was actually won by an English youth named Horace Rawlings, in 1895, who beat Harry Vardon, the most prominent golfer of the time, into second place.

And that the true location of the very first US Open was the aforesaid Country Club, Newport, on Rhode Island. He was the first of 11 successive British winners of the new American national championship.

Over the 127 years since inception, there have been 122 Open Championships staged at many of the most difficult and prestigious courses in America.

This year there will be 156 competitors teeing up, competing for a winner’s prize of about US$2 million, total fund of US$12.5 million, and with a 10-year exemption for forthcoming Opens also available. Rawlings received US$150!

This year the venue will be Brookline Country Club, which is somewhat infamous given the Ryder Cup gamesmanship and poor etiquette vigorously entered into by some of the American team. But it has more interesting precedents. President JF Kennedy was born in 1917 and spent his early schooling and the first 10 years of his life nearby.

Brookline has staged three previous Opens – in 1913, 1963 and 1988, the first won famously by Francis Ouimet soon after giving up caddying. Next was Julius Boros and then Curtis Strange most recently, but since then there has been a 34-year gap for the club’s opportunity to host this event again for only a fourth time. The 2023 Open Championship will be at Pinehurst No.2.

The last five winners of the Open have been Jon Rahm in 2021, Bryson de Chambeaux (2020), Gary Woodland (2019), Brooks Keopka (2017) and Keopka again (2018).

The course has been altered for this year’s championship, slightly reducing it to about 6 700 metres, still long though and with many a pitfall for its par of 70.

Main interest this year will fall on Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler, recent PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas, Will Zalatoris, Bryson de Chambeau, Harry Vardon, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Tony Finau, Cameron Smith, Collin Morikawa, a long and compelling list. Britons include Tommy Fleetwood, Paul Casey, Matthew Fitgerald, Justin Rose, Danny Willett, Luke Donald and Tyrell Hatton as well as Irishmen Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowrey.

Tiger Woods cannot be seriously considered. He looked to be in a lot of pain during the PGA Championship third round before he withdrew. He has presumably been considering whether to enter for the championship and may decide closer to the entry deadline date.

However, a long-odds outsider could win in addition to that august group, so high is the present general standard of professional golf. Some examples – Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger, Patrick Cantlay, Hideki Matsuyama, Louis Oosthuizen. It might even turn out to be somebody almost unknown.

And we must now also include Zimbabwe’s Sean Crocker, only the fourth Zimbabwean to do so after Nick Price, Mark NcNulty and Brendon de Jonge.

That is if you still want to consider Crocker as a Zimbabwean. The son of Gary Crocker, a former Zimbabwe international cricketer, Bulawayo-born Sean was taken to America at a very young age and raised in California, with golf a main feature of his education. In a very recent qualifying tournament, Crocker scored 64 and 67 to obtain one of the very few places available.

So if I am asked who will win, I will say it is the one who has fewest watery grave shots, bad lies in the long rough, three-putt holes and missed short ones. Basically he will be a player who can manage to keep out of trouble through 72 holes. Trying to predict who that would be is like locating the proverbial needle in a haystack.

This will most likely be the most intense of all US Championships, due to the long list of serious top class competition. For the winner there will be no greater sense of achievement in any sport this year.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwean golf professional Scott Vincent has secured a place in the forthcoming British Open, commonly known as The Open, his qualification coming through victory in the 2020 Mizumo Open of Japan following a tense playoff against Anthony Quale.

30-year-old Vincent is only the third Zimbabwean to do so, the others being Nick Price and Mark McNulty. He will be one of 156 competitors. He has been a professional for seven years, achieving three victories in Japan and another on the Asian Tour, where he had five runner-up tournament finishes.

Vincent started off on the Canadian Tour, which is where the late Lewis Chitengwa followed his short career, but his best successes were mainly in Japan, where he won well over US$2 million along the way.

It is a fitting development for the Harare-born and Virginia Tech College student to be playing alongside the greatest golfers in the world. He cannot expect to win the British Open, but making the cut would be a marvellous achievement.

His wife Loupee will surely be pencilled in as caddy as she has worked for him frequently in the past. They live in Denver, Colorado.

As an amateur Scott was coached at Chapman by Roger Baylis. He represented Zimbabwe in the 2018 World Cup, played in two Eisenhowers for Zimbabwe in 2010 and 2012. He also played in Zimbabwe colours at the recent Tokyo Olympic Games. As a pro he was also sixth in the South African Open of 2020 and 17th in the Dunhill, Scotland, that year, were some of his best results.

This qualification entry into the US Open Championship is a major breakthrough for him and, by extension, all Zimbabweans involved in the development of golf. And it ensures a big following by golf enthusiasts here.

*Veteran author and journalist John Kelley, who caddied at The Open in the 1960s, now lives in Southsea near Portsmouth, England. Kelley still plays golf at the age of 91 and writes occasionally for The NewsHawks.

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