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This golfer has spent decades trying to qualify for the Open. Now he’s playing the biggest yet

The Claret Jug won’t get underway in St Andrews, Scotland, until Sunday, but English golfer Matt Ford has already secured the victory of a lifetime: qualification for the Open Championship.

The 44-year-old has hit tens of thousands of shots in more than 280 tournaments, but when he hits off the opening tee of the Old Course on Thursday, it will mark his first swing at a major, in a professional career spanning nearly two decades. .

Ford turned professional in 2003, but his efforts to reach The Open began as an amateur. They included a qualifying playoff loss to future Masters winner Trevor Immelman, and he has since reached the final standings numerous times.

“I tried to figure it out the other day actually, how many times have I tried,” Ford told CNN, settling on an estimate of 24 unsuccessful attempts so far.

The son of a professional footballer, Ford grew up in the English city of Swindon wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps. Having first picked up a club at age 10, it wasn’t until he finished school at 18 that he launched himself into golf full-time.

“I loved football, but it was also very frustrating, whereas golf is up to you,” Ford said.

“Even though the game of golf is anything but control, you can still control a lot more in an individual sport.”

Turning professional at age 25, Ford got off to a good start, competing in the 2005 BMW PGA Championship (previously the British PGA Championship) at Wentworth.

Competing in a European Tour event gave the Englishman a huge confidence boost, but in 2013 he came close to walking away from the sport. Despite a handful of additional appearances on the European Tour (now the DP World Tour), Ford has spent most of his career in his secondary series, the Challenge Tour.

Challenges Tour of Challenges

Five runner-up finishes have been highlights, but the constant long tours around the world to courses far less luxurious than the European and PGA Tours have taken their toll mentally and, above all, financially.

Only the top 10 of the 156-player Challenge Tour “realistically” earn enough prize money to subsidize the cost of playing the event, with Ford estimating that more than half of the remaining players lose more than $1,000 per week.

By Ford’s own calculations, he has lost money more often than he has made it, and with his wife Suzie and two young children to support, the pressure to literally ‘play for a living’ has been a challenge.

“The number of times I’ve thought about leaving this game and like a lot of people say, ‘get a proper job,’ it’s been tough,” he said.

“It’s emotional because of the way my family has supported me. I haven’t necessarily made as much money as I would like for this to be comfortable.”

Ford shoots off the tee during the Spanish Challenge in Cadiz, Spain, in May.

A breakthrough followed in late 2014 when Ford earned his card at the European Tour Qualifying School, opening the door for him to compete in nearly 60 European Tour events over the next two years.

He lost his card before the 2017 season, but kept pushing until he found himself competing in the final Open qualifying event at Prince’s Golf Club in Kent, England, in July.

A whirlwind start to the second round put Ford in a commanding position at 5-under heading into the final 10 holes of qualifying, before four shots over the next four holes seemed to write a familiar chapter in their qualifying history. of the Open.

“You start to wonder, ‘Have I screwed up? What have I done? Idiot,'” he recalled.

However, when Suzie and the two boys came in for the last six holes after school, they saw Ford come to a spectacular finish. He shot an eagle along the way to make up those four missed shots to finish 5 under par and qualify as the winner of the event, two shots out of second place.

Ford lines up a putt on the 14th green during the Italian Challenge Open in Viterbo, Italy, in July.

‘The greatest of all’

As well as fulfilling his own childhood dream of playing the Open, no less than a historic 150th edition on the legendary Old Course, Ford is equally excited to share the experience with his family.

“Sorry teachers,” his sons have secured a result of their own with days off to watch their dad compete in Scotland. And desperate to meet Tiger Woods, Ford has already made good on his promise, tweeting a photo of his daughter with the three-time Open champion on Wednesday.

“They are just as happy and excited as I am,” he said. “The tournaments they’ve walked with me, they’ve been able to see every shot and there haven’t been too many people around.

“It’s going to go crazy in St. Andrews with so many people… it’s going to be such a big event, people are saying it’s going to be one of the biggest in history.”

The experience, the potential paycheck, and the opportunities it can generate for future DP World Tour events; Ford cites many reasons to be excited about the week. However, when the goal of a lifetime was to get to the first tee, what is the ultimate goal now that you are about to get there?

“Am I thinking about winning the tournament? No, not really,” Ford said. “But there’s no reason I can’t have a great week and who knows what could happen. This is golf and if I can run, you just don’t know.”

Golf legend Tom Watson recalls his Open Classic at St Andrews

“I’m not really setting myself too many specific goals other than keeping a smile on my face and enjoying the week. If I do that, hopefully I’ll get some good scores.”

Whatever the result, surely it will not be for lack of effort.

Ford is scheduled to start his first round at 11:15am BST (6:15am ET) on Thursday.

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