Brandon Stone remembers two things from his final round at last year’s Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open: putting his tee in the ground on the first hole and sitting in the scoring tent at the end of the round, talking to his parents on FaceTime.
“When I was on the 18th green, I had no idea where we stood,” he said. “That was when my caddie let me look at the scoreboard. We went out there with the mentality of playing a Sunday afternoon round with your mates.”
That relaxed approach helped him shoot a 60, missing a putt on the 18th hole that would have put him in the record books with a 59. He won the tournament by four shots.
But that victory came with an added bonus: He qualified for the British Open at Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland, a last-minute entrant into golf’s oldest major championship.
“The Open spot didn’t register with me until I was hoisting the trophy,” Stone said. “A guy from the R&A came up to me and said ‘Here’s your card and your flag for next week.’ I had completely forgotten about it.”
The R&A, which organizes the British Open and administers the rules of golf with its counterpart, the United States Golf Association, created a qualifying series more than a decade ago to allow anyone to play their way into the championship. It is a yearlong series that lets players qualify in different ways, through their annual rankings, qualifying events and high finishes at a handful of professional tournaments.
But the Scottish Open and the John Deere Classic, held the same week in Illinois, give players a thrilling, last-minute chance to enter the British Open.
“The qualifying series is so important for the Open Championship,” said Johnnie Cole-Hamilton, executive director of championships at the R&A. “We don’t want it to be seen as us selecting 156 players by scouring the rankings. We’re trying to let people qualify.”
And the last-minute entrants are part of this. “We’re delighted that this is what happens,” Cole-Hamilton added.
For the Scottish Open, there are spots for the three highest finishers not already in the British Open, a bit of consolation for not winning the tournament.
[Read more about the site of this year’s Scottish Open, the Renaissance Club]
In 2017, Callum Shinkwin, an English golfer, led the tournament until the 72nd hole, when he had his only bogey of the round. That tied him with Rafa Cabrera-Bello. Shinkwin lost the sudden-death playoff, but qualified for the British Open.
He “was obviously disappointed not to have won the tournament having led on the 72nd hole, but, that event not only helped him qualify for the Open, but immediately removed any fear of losing his card that season,” said David Jebb, his agent at IMG, a sports agency.
While qualifying on Sunday for a tournament that begins on Monday adds a layer of excitement to what is a career achievement for many players, the moment does not come without stress and confusion.
Stone and his caddie Teagan Moore, who are good friends, had planned to spend the next week on a whisky-tasting tour of Scotland. Instead, they were scrambling to change flights and cars and get more clothes. “Finding an apartment the week of the Open is hard at the best of times, but it’s not easy the night before the tournament,” he said.
At least for the players who qualify in Scotland, the British Open is close to where they need to be. Carnoustie is only a couple of hours by car from Gullane, where the Scottish Open was played last year. This year, it is across the Irish Sea at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland.
The same cannot be said for the qualifier from the John Deere. Only the winner or the highest finisher not already in the tournament gets into the British Open, a plum battlefield promotion but one that was besieged by chaos in its early incarnation.
In 2004, the first year the last-minute spot was granted, the winner Mark Hensby did not want to go and tried to give his spot to the second-place finisher. (That was not how it worked.) In 2005, Sean O’Hair won but did not have a passport (but he quickly got one).
It was worse in 2007. The winner Jonathan Byrd left his passport at home in Georgia, so the tournament chartered a plane to get him home and then over to the British Open, also at Carnoustie.
“We found that seven players in those years who went to the Open from the John Deere all lost their luggage going through Heathrow,” said Clair Peterson, the tournament director at the John Deere.
Fearing that no top-notch players would come to the Midwest the week before the British Open, Peterson went to the title sponsor and convinced the tractor manufacturer to have a chartered jet waiting to leave on Sunday night.
Now, Peterson said, a Boeing 767 is there to take the qualifier and anyone else from the tournament who is playing at the British Open.
“Last year, Michael Kim’s family flew to watch him hole out in record-setting fashion to win, and they all got on the plane,” he said. “We’ve had Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler on the jet. Tom Lehman brought his daughter and her friends on the jet.”
The jet has also drawn elite players with a curiosity for the tournament. “Louis Oosthuizen is a huge John Deere guy,” Peterson said. “He bought a 6000 series tractor with his Open winnings and came here the year after he won to go on a factory tour. The jet allowed him to still get on and go and defend.”
But after that rush to get in and then to the British Open, some players have not played their best the next week. Jebb attributed this to fatigue, noting that the tournaments leading up to the Open all present opportunities to qualify for the championship. Sometimes, the grind takes its toll.
The highest-placed finishers who have qualified through the Scottish Open were Tyrrell Hatton, who was the runner-up at the Scottish Open in 2016 and finished fifth at the British Open, and Eddie Pepperell, who finished sixth last year.
Players jetting over after qualifying at the John Deere have fared worse. The R&A said the highest-place finisher was Brian Harman, who finished 26th in 2014.
Stone made the cut last year, despite having little time to get to know the course. He was at even par after Saturday’s round, with a shot at a strong finish if not a win. But he shot six over that day and finished tied for 61st place.
“We looked at it from the point of view that we weren’t supposed to be there,” Stone said. “We played quite nicely the first couple of days, but then we ran out of steam. We finished all right in the end, but it was just such a surreal experience.”
While Stone will defend his Scottish Open title this week, he will do so knowing he’s already got a spot at the British Open. He qualified the old-fashioned way, through the season-long money list.
“We knew a lot more ahead of time,” Stone said. Now, he just needs to worry about the first tee shot at the Open. “It’s the most nerve-racking experience.”