SOUTHPORT, England – Stuart Manley fought off coughs and a runny nose as he fielded question after question from the gathered media Thursday at Royal Birkdale. Just four days ago, the flu had hit him hard, his body slowly recovering by day since as he tried to prepare for his first British Open.
He’s had better days physically. Emotionally? There are few moments that can compete.
Teeing off in the day’s second grouping, at 6:46 a.m. local time and in brutal weather conditions, a bundled-up Manley bogeyed his first hole.
“I was standing there shaking (on the first tee),” Manley said. “I was amazed I made contact to be honest.”
But less than five hours later, the 38-year-old journeyman from Wales found himself with the clubhouse lead, an eagle-birdie finish having earned him a hard-fought 2-under 68.
“I didn’t dream of it. I didn’t think about it,” said Manley, who holed a bunker shot on the par-5 17th before draining a lengthy birdie roll at the last in front of packed grandstands. “I just thought post a decent score, give myself (a chance) tomorrow for making the cut and have a good weekend.
“… It happened so quick. I eagled 17, birdied 18. Didn’t have much time to look at the leaderboards. It was only 20, 30 minutes and I finished. So it hasn’t really sunk in.”
It surely will when Manley gets back to the house he’s renting with his family, caddie, and his coach, Neil Matthews. It’s the love and support from that group of people that has fueled Manley along on his journey.
You see, nothing has come easy for Manley. He’s had to work and grind and fight his way here.
Manley started playing golf at 10 years old with his father, David, at Mountain Ash Golf Club near the family’s home. But he had another passion: soccer. He was a talented center back who as a teenager marked future Premier League and national-level players, Michael Owen of England and Craig Bellamy of Wales. When he was 16, Manley had trials with Manchester United, Crystal Palace and Luton.
Surely he would one day play professional soccer. But Manley’s love for the sport dwindled. When his matches would get canceled, he’d race home to grab his clubs and head to the golf course with his friends. Then he made the tough decision to quit soccer and focus on golf.
“Deep down I didn’t believe I was good enough; nowhere near good enough,” Manley said. “And I didn’t really enjoy it. I thought it was too much pressure. And I loved golf.”
Manley decided he wanted to play college golf in the U.S., so he sent an email to Steve Fell, the head coach at Division-II West Florida. Fell happened to be needing a player, so he asked Manley to send him video of his swing.
“I remember he was hitting balls in an open field in Wales and his dad was filming him,” Fell said.
Manley committed to the University of West Florida without ever making a visit. He later got on a plane for the first time and headed to Pensacola, Fla. He was a 4-handicap when he arrived at school. He left a three-time All-American in four years with the Argonauts.
“He was someone who just worked really hard,” Fell said. “He had the talent, I could see it, and had a pretty solid swing. It just needed some tweaking. He worked extremely hard. Really dedicated. Just grinded every day.”
Said Manley: “I was an international boy golfer but I wasn’t very good, and it improved my game massively. I came back quite accomplished.”
When he turned pro in 2003 after representing Great Britain and Ireland in the Walker Cup, Manley joined the European Challenger Tour. A year later, he had earned his European Tour card for the first time, via Qualifying School.
Over the next 12 years, though, Manley would lose that card five times, and never held it for two consecutive seasons. He even played most of his golf on the EuroPro Tour, in 2012. But Manley has never quit. He’s regained his European Tour membership six times, including five times via Q-School, most recently last winter.
And while he’s made just three cuts in 13 starts this season on the European Tour, he does have two top-11 finishes, including a T-2 at the Joburg Open, a finish that earned him his trip to Royal Birkdale.
“I still feel like every year I’m making gains,” Manley said. “Sometimes you question yourself when you’ve got a couple of poor years. And then people ask you, ‘Do you think you should continue?’ But since I’ve met Neil (who he played amateur golf with) … I’ve really felt like my golf game is getting better and better.
“I still love the travel. I love everything about it. Obviously a lot of my friends that I started with have fallen by the wayside. They’ve had families and they’ve not loved it as much as me. I’m lucky, my appetite for the game is still there.”
Manley, the 520th-ranked player in the world, never could’ve imagined he’d start out the British Open like this. He entered the week having missed six straight cuts. Then on the range he found something Wednesday, only to show up Thursday morning feeling out of rhythm and heavy-legged.
“The first hole was horrendous,” Manley said. “You could see in the distance it was getting brighter, so If I could just hang on for the first three holes it would be all right.”