WALTON-ON-THE-HILL, England – Ninety-four of Europe’s elite professionals turned up to qualify for arguably the game’s hardest major, and a garden party broke out.
What do you expect when you stage a U.S. Open qualifying tournament at Walton Heath, a most quintessential English golf club in a place called Walton-on-the-Hill in the leafy county of Surrey?
For the record, Simon Khan, Paul Casey, Jaco Van Zyl, Morten Orum Madsen, Peter Hedblom, Marcus Fraser, Eddie Pepperell, Jose Maria Olazabal, David Howell, John Parry, Chris Doak and Estanislao Goya took the 12 qualifying spots and will tee it up at Merion next month.
The day was about more than who qualified. For those fans who turned up, it was a chance to see some of the rising stars of European and international golf for free in a relaxed atmosphere. Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal, Casey, Ross Fisher, Howell, Simon Dyson, Alexander Noren, Pablo Martin, Rhys Davies, Oliver Fisher, Peter Uihlein and Tom Lewis all teed it up, to name a few.
Members sat on the clubhouse terrace sipping cocktails while competitors practiced their putting just a few yards away. A man in a white straw boater hat and a blue blazer sat sipping red wine as if he was watching a cricket match.
The only roped-off area was behind the first tee of the Old Course. Aside from that, spectators could walk practically wherever they wanted, though most were savvy enough to stay well out of the way.
Still, five young autograph hunters actually strode onto the Old Course’s 18th green to get autographs from Matthew Baldwin and Chris Paisley. One of the youngsters was in bare feet. A passing cyclist leaned on his bike nearby.
“It’s like watching Ollie play amateur golf again,” said Kay Fisher, mother of European Tour pro Oliver Fisher. “It’s just such a relaxed atmosphere. It’s a lot different from Wentworth.”
Tickets at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last week cost £40. Dogs weren’t allowed. Man’s best friend was most welcome at Walton Heath. The club wouldn’t have it any other way.
As with many traditional English golf clubs, Walton Heath members are allowed to take their canine chums onto the fairways. So it was no surprise to see couples out strolling the fairways with dogs on leads.
Walton Heath is on common land, which means exactly what it says on the tin – land for the common people. The club has to share the course with walkers, dog walkers, runners, cyclists, picnickers and everyone else who wants to use the land.
Once a year that includes US Open hopefuls.
Secretary Stuart Christie has been at Walton Heath for four years after working at Wentworth. He’s presided over four of the nine U.S. Open qualifiers.
“It’s a great day for us,” Christie said. “The members really embrace it. We get strong fields every year. I mean, this year we have two Ryder Cup captains in Monty and Olazabal.
“I’m not sure how many people turn up because we don’t count heads, but we have 1,400 cars parked, so that gives you an idea. That’s about as big as we want it to get. We want to keep it pretty low key.”
Michael Campbell did the event the power of good at 2005’s inaugural tournament. He qualified at Walton Heath and then went on to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. One of the 12 qualifiers might do the same this year, but those fans who turned up at Walton Heath won’t care a lot. They’re just looking forward to next year’s U.S. Open garden party.