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Sam Bairstow targets Open Championship return to help him take next step to professional ranks

For a few days – usually two fewer because they invariably miss the cut – they are equals with the Tiger Woods’, Collin Morikawa’s and Rory McIlroy’s of this world.

Traditionally they tee off late on Thursday and early on Friday and they pass through the clubhouse and around the course unrecognized by most punters.

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But for the majority it can be the culmination of years of trying, decades of hard work, and the highlight of a career.

Sam Bairstow tees off at the 10th at Moortown Golf Club in the English Amateur Championship last summer. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

For Sam Bairstow, a young amateur from Sheffield, his qualification for last year’s Open Championship at Royal St George’s is something he hopes becomes the norm.

Bairstow, 23, went to Sandwich having battled through final qualifying to take his place in the Open field and was determined to seize the moment.

“It was an invaluable experience in the development of my game,” Bairstow remembers now, nearly a year on.

“Seeing what the top players do and what I need to do to improve my own game.”

Practicing alongside Viktor Hovland ahead of last year’s Open at Royal St George’s gave Sam Bairstow an insight into what is required to make it as a professional player. Picture: AP/David J. Phillip

Bairstow might only have played two tournament rounds – he shot 75 and 72 to finish seven over par – but a greater insight into what it might take to make it to the top came on one of the practice days.

For practice rounds, all players must mark on a sheet in the clubhouse what time they are teeing off. The very brave among the qualifiers might put their name at the side of a big hitter.

“I had 18 holes with just me and Viktor Hovland, just stuck my name down on the sheet next to him and that was that,” says Bairstow of the Norwegian Ryder Cup player and one of the stars of world golf.

“That was pretty eye-opening, just his ability to get it round the golf course.

“The difference between amateur and professional golf tournaments is not that big, but it’s how they manage themselves around the golf course and get it round in the best score they can.

“I wouldn’t say there’s anything ability wise that’s much different, it’s all down to the management.”

That ability to score well served the left-hander well just weeks later at Ganton in North Yorkshire when he won the Brabazon Trophy, one of the most prestigious events in amateur golf. Among the favorites given home knowledge and his status in the England men’s squad, Bairstow opened with a five-under-par round of 66 and then held off the field over the remaining three rounds.

“I played nice all year last year and the only thing missing was a win so to do it at Ganton was special, it’s definitely a career highlight,” says Bairstow, who won by two shots.

“I know Ganton well, it’s a course that sets up nicely for me.

“I just played really solid, didn’t make many mistakes and finished 11 under. If you’d have offered me half of that at the start of the week I’d have snapped your hands off.

“First round was probably the most pressure just because there were a few people watching and I knew a few of the members up there who are Yorkshire officials, so to shoot five under, bogey-free, that was great and settled me down for the rest of the week.”

Armed with the positive feelings of St George’s and Ganton, Bairstow began the 2022 amateur season at the Lytham Trophy this weekend.

It is the first of a busy stretch of tournaments that includes the British Amateur Championship, the European Amateur, the defense of his Brabazon title, and – if he can qualify again – the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews.

“Getting back to the Open would be good,” he smiles.

“It would be nice to win either of the British or European Ams; the British gets you into all the majors and European gets you into the Open as well. It’d be nice to win one of those and not have to do final qualifying.”

Whether he achieves that this summer or not, it is an enviable position to be in given he didn’t pick up a club until he was 12.

“I played football up until the age of 12 but then went to my local driving range with my brother and my dad and took it from there,” say Bairstow, a Dronfield lad who is a member of Hallowes Golf Club.

“I’ve always played sports and always enjoyed playing different sports.

“The first few years I played golf for the enjoyment and it wasn’t until age 16/17 that I started to take it seriously.

“I started practicing a bit, having regular lessons, playing regular. Since then I’ve kept working hard.

“About a year after I did my A-levels, I was stuck for what to do next and my coach, Nick Huby at Pete Cowen Golf Academy, had always told me I’d got quite a bit of talent so I started to believe it more and began to work harder at my game.

“I’ve got to the level I’m at now – playing for England and playing in the Open – so I’ve just got to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

Turning professional is the next big decision.

Even at 23, Bairstow could still be categorized as a late developer: his first England honors did not come until October 2019.

Taking up a scholarship in America as many golfing prodigies both male and female do – Danny Willett, Matt Fitzpatrick, Alex Fitzpatrick, Charlotte Heath to name just a few Yorkshire players to develop their game Stateside – wasn’t really an option because in his late teens as Bairstow puts it: “I just don’t think my ability was where I wanted it to be to warrant going.”

So instead he has stayed at home, using England camps in South Africa to enhance his game, and working with Golfing4Life, a non-profit organization that supports young golfers with logistical and financial support to enable them to compete.

“They helped me out at the Open, paid for my accommodation in Sandwich, which was a five-minute drive,” Bairstow tells The Yorkshire Post.

“It made me feel a lot more comfortable, not being miles away and worrying about getting to the course every day.”

It is all designed at helping with the transition to the professional ranks, whenever that might be.

“Eventually I’d like to turn professional. It’s just been announced that Q School is back on at the end of the year, I’ll give that a go and then see what happens,” he says.

“If I end up with a category on Tour I will probably turn pro. If not I’ll have to have a sit down and think about it because the Walker Cup is at the end of the following year, so I’ll see where I am at the end of this year and decide then.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of people about it, people who have turned pro, tour players, and they’ve all said that you’ll know when you’re ready to go, so I’ll just wait for that moment .”

By then, playing with Viktor Hovland will be his right, not just a novelty.

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