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Disquiet about regional Open qualification

The cursed mutterings of the disgruntled golfer were more audible than ever yesterday as a field of almost 1,600 set out on 16 courses spanning the length and breadth of the United Kingdom in regional qualifying for next week's Open Championship.

There are just 12 Royal Troon places up for grabs at this weekend's local final qualifying in Ayrshire, to which around 300 marched forward to yesterday. This is down more than half from last year and represents less than a quarter of the 49 prized spots at Carnoustie in 1999, one of which was claimed by Paul Lawrie on his way to the biggest prize of all.

It has been the introduction of international final qualifying - as the Royal and Ancient have strived for "a more global Open" - that has curtailed the berths. Events in South Africa, Malaysia and Australia have yielded four spots each, while last week's international final qualifiers at Sunningdale and Washington came up with 17 and 15 respectively.

It was a farce in the United States, however, that really had the eclectic bunch of struggling professionals and bright-eyed amateurs who gathered yesterday spitting out their golf tees. An insulting 53 of 120 scratched, leaving just 67 to battle it out for 15 places. That is a success ratio of almost one in four, which does not front up favourably to the one in 150 who will emerge from this week's traditional route. Talk about a kick in the regionals.

"Yeah that was nice in America wasn't it?" said Liam Bond, a member of the EuroPro Tour, European golf's third division, who decided not to enter this year. "There are pros over here who would give their eye teeth for that sort of chance. It's the first time in nine years that I didn't bother entering and plenty of the boys who play on the EuroPro Tour with me didn't either."

Nevertheless, yesterday's field was only a 10th less than last year's, although the feeling was that the numbers will dwindle as it dawns on competitors the odds they are facing. "It's the expense which is hard to justify," said Bond. "It costs £100 to enter and should you get through it'll set you back around £500. It used to be worth it when there were a dozen places on offer at each of the four final qualifying courses but now it's something like three out of a 100 getting in."

Steven Bottomley, the Yorkshireman who came from nowhere to finish third in the 1995 Open at St Andrew's but who yesterday found himself back at nowhere, or rather the Alwoodley qualifier in Leeds, sympathised.

"A friend pays for my entrance fee and because of this and the nostalgia of the Open that's why I'm here," said Bottomley, now a teaching pro who organises corporate golf days. "But I must be honest, if I was still earning my money out of playing then I wouldn't bother. There's still enough of a chance to get through the regionals but now when you get through to final qualifying it's ridiculous."

At least Bottomley spared himself all that rigmarole, an early morning 77 being well off the pace, but there will be another familiar name in Scotland this weekend. James Conteh, the 26-year-old son of the former world boxing champion John, eased through at Hadley Wood with a 67 that earned the Moor Park professional his third crack at final qualifying in as many years.

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