In what is an historic moment for the MENA Tour by Arena, members Matthew Baldwin and amateur Curtis Knipes have secured their spots at the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
The Open, which is returning to both Northern Ireland and Portrush for the first time since it was last held at the iconic golf course in 1951, begins later this month from July 18-21.
The 33-year-old Baldwin, from Southport, currently leads the Tour’s Journey To Jordan (Order of Merit) over Frenchman Robin Roussell.
Knipes, from Chelmsford and just 18, is the Amateur Order of Merit leader enjoying a healthy lead over Josh Hill.
Also qualifying for the final major championship of the season is England’s Callum Shinkwin, who won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic Shootout on the Tour in January.
As many as 288 players teed up for the 36-hole shootout at four venues across the UK for a shot at 12 spots – three from each venue.
Knipes and Shinkwin topped the final qualifying tournament at Prince’s in Kent with scores of nine-under par. Knipes shot 67 in the morning and followed it up with a 68 in the afternoon. Shinkwin, who also won the qualifying event for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship a few days before his triumph at Dubai Hills, started with a 70 but was brilliant in the afternoon as he returned a card of 65.
Baldwin led at St Annes Old Links with a superb seven-under par 65 round. He then rounded off with a two-under par 70 to finish on nine-under par as well, good enough for a solo third place and a fifth appearance at a major championship.
“This is a historic moment for the MENA Tour,” said David Spencer, a Tour advisor.
“We have two full members at Royal Portrush, and Callum effectively kick-started our revamped Tour when he won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic Shootout.
“Let’s also not forget that two of our past champions – Jazz Janewattananond and Robert MacIntyre – have also qualified for the Open Championship. So we effectively have five players with MENA Tour connection in a world-class field of 156.”
Thailand’s Janewattananond, winner of the 2017 Mahasamutr Open on the MENA Tour, has been in great form recently. He punched his ticket to the Open by winning the SMBC Singapore Open in January.
Scotland’s MacIntyre, winner of the 2017 Sahara Kuwait Golf Championship, is now on the European Tour and made it to the Open as one of five players ranked inside the top-20 of the current Race to Dubai who hadn’t already qualified.
Knipes, who played at Royal Portrush last year in the Boys Amateur and got to the last 16, came through the regional qualifying before his remarkable performance on Tuesday.
“It’s huge to get into The Open – the best competition in the world. I wasn’t that nervous, I had nothing to lose,” said Knipes.
The MENA Tour is returning to the world schedule after a year of restructuring and features 10 tournaments in 2019. It will continue to provide Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) points, thus making it a perfect pathway for ambitious young professional to the bigger tours, and for the players from the region to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The second half of the schedule begins with the Journey To Jordan-2 at Ayla Golf Club in Aqaba, Jordan, from September 29.
Phil Mickelson believes winning the US Open to complete the career grand slam is the only thing which can redefine his career, but whether it would restore his reputation remains up for debate.
While Brooks Koepka won a second consecutive title and Tommy Fleetwood equalled the lowest score in tournament history at Shinnecock Hills last year, the unwelcome abiding memory was of Mickelson’s antics during the third round.
The five-time major winner, who was already four over par for the day on his 48th birthday, badly overhit a putt on the 13th hole which was set to roll off the parched green.
However, Mickelson prevented that happening by running after the ball and hitting it while it was still rolling, a breach of rule 14-5 which incurs a two-shot penalty.
Such a flagrant and deliberate act was met with gasps of surprise in the media centre and fierce criticism from several quarters, former US PGA champion Steve Elkington among those calling for Mickelson to be disqualified and accusing him of “trying to embarrass the USGA”.
David Fay said on Fox Sports he would have “lobbied for disqualification” if a similar incident had occurred while he was executive director of the USGA, adding: “I think the current language of [rule] 14-5 is too friendly.”
5 days until the #USOpen! At the 5th championship in 1899, Willie Smith won by 11 strokes - the largest margin of victory until Tiger Woods won by 15 in 2000. #RoadToPebbleBeach pic.twitter.com/WFvp0i9LgN— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) 8 June 2019
Mickelson was unrepentant in the immediate aftermath, claiming he was using the rules to his advantage and telling his critics to “toughen up”, although a few days later he sent a message to a handful of American journalists offering his apologies.
Nevertheless, the feeling lingered that Mickelson had been sending a message to the USGA over the way they set up courses for the US Open, an event where he has finished runner-up a record six times.
The last of those came at Merion in 2013, a month before he won the Open Championship at Muirfield to complete the third leg of a career grand slam which has only been achieved by Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
His attempts to join golf’s most exclusive club have produced a best finish of 28th – at Pinehurst in 2014 – and he even opted to miss the 2017 US Open to attend his daughter’s high school graduation, but this year’s venue could hardly offer Mickelson a better chance of victory.
A three-shot victory over England’s Paul Casey in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am earlier this season was Mickelson’s fifth in the event and he was also runner-up in 2016 and 2018, although the course will be set up far tougher in June than it was in February.
“I do think about what I have to do to win a US Open and it’s getting increasingly difficult,” Mickelson said. “But we’re on a golf course at Pebble where you really don’t need to hit a lot of drivers. So it gives me a chance. It lessens my weakness, which is hitting fairways.
“And you need to putt poa annua greens very well with a lot of break, which is something I’ve done well.”
Standing in Mickelson’s way of course will be another 155 players, most notably Masters champion Woods and reigning champion Koepka, who is trying to become only the second player ever to win three straight US Open titles.
Koepka’s successful title defence in last month’s US PGA at Bethpage made it four major victories in his last eight appearances and the big-hitting American was also joint second behind Woods at Augusta.
Woods did not play competitively between the Masters and the US PGA, which has shifted in the calendar from August to May, meaning a missed cut at Bethpage did not come as a big surprise.
But the 15-time major winner famously won by a record 15 shots in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach and made sure his game was sharp by entering the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village.
All signs point to a thrilling third major of the season and maybe, just maybe, Mickelson finally lifting the US Open trophy on his 49th birthday.
A third round of 70 left Koepka on 12 under par and seven shots ahead of world number one Dustin Johnson, Harold Varner, Luke List and Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond, with England’s Matt Wallace and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama a shot further back.
Greg Norman famously lost a six-shot lead in the final round of the 1996 Masters, but asked if he had any doubts about completing a wire-to-wire victory on Sunday, Koepka said: “No. I feel confident. I feel good. I feel excited.
“I don’t know what the (weather) forecast is but if I can hit a few fairways, there’s really a couple of key holes out here. If you play seven well, play 10 and 12 well, then from there you just hit the centre of the greens and try to par this place to death.
“I’m definitely not going to let up, I promise you that. I’d love to force it on the field and make it where it’s as big as a lead as I possibly can get. It would be nice to be able to make a 10 on the last hole and be okay.
“But I’m just playing to play good golf and wherever that puts me, I’ll be satisfied if I just go play one more good round.
“If you start treating tomorrow’s round differently than every other round, I feel like that’s where I would maybe be nervous.
“It’s just like any other round I’ve ever played. It’s 18 holes. Try to hit the fairway. Try to hit the green and try to make birdie.”