Aiming for the top
The 151st Open Championship was very special for Troon’s Michael Stewart. Not only was it his first Open Championship but he also finished the tournament as the top Scot, with ultimate bragging rights over his fellow countrymen.
I caught up with him while he was preparing for Challenge De Espana. The drive and determination to be back on the sport’s biggest stage is evident, and as the next Open Championship is in his home town, his qualification would be very special.
Michael had to qualify for this year’s Open Championship but headed to Dundonald Links for one of the four qualifying events in confident mood – he knows the course well and feels it suits his game.
“The course is set up nicely for my game, the shots I like to hit, it’s a golf course I enjoy playing. I’m lucky enough to play it often when I’m home and the club is great at looking after me.”
That experience helped him manage the extra media coverage of the event due to Michael Block’s appearance, which would stand him in good stead in a few weeks’ time. The American PGA professional had an incredible performance at The USPGA and there was extra attention with the American being in attendance.
“Fair play to him, he had an amazing time at The PGA, deserves every bit of praise. It was busier than usual, but I just focused on my game, my shots and I played really well. I played well during the first round but just lacked a bit of momentum. Second round I had a good start and then caught fire at the end.”
So hot was his finish that Michael won the event, sealing his Open qualification and beating the likes of Block and PGA tour pro, Aaron Rai.
Michael only had a couple of weeks to prepare and I was interested if the stories were true about people cashing in on sponsors in that period.
“I’ve heard of guys that have done that but I’m lucky enough to have good sponsors already. It can open doors though and it is an expensive week, especially if you are trying to book accommodation that close to the event. The big names are booked in well in advance so when you qualify so late you can pay through the roof, but my sponsors were great and looked after me.”
Not sure what to expect, Michael headed down to Liverpool and tried to keep everything as normal as possible.
“I got some great advice early in my career that at these events try to keep everything the same. You can go and look at the tee sheet and the practice area… I could have popped myself in beside Rahm and McIlroy but I was advised early in my career to avoid that. You could get overwhelmed and start to focus on their shots instead of your own practice. The whole thing could become quite surreal. So I just focused on me and tried to play my best golf.”
This advice certainly seemed to work for Michael on day one. As a qualifier he knew he was going to be either out really early or really late and it was the latter on day one, teeing off in the penultimate match and finishing at 9.30pm. A bogey start was then cancelled out by back to back birdies on holes 4 and 5.
“I played really well 3 to 12, bogeyed 13 but bounced straight back on 14. The birdie on 18 was a great way to finish and I had a good first day.”
I wanted to understand the mindset after the opening day. Three-under after round one, what was Michael’s focus? Making the cut at The Open can open a lot of doors and also comes with a great paycheck. I wanted to know where his thoughts were.
“I finished late and then my caddie, one of my mates and I, went for dinner in the players’ lounge and then I went to bed ‘cause I was back out early on the Friday. I never thought once about making the cut. I wanted to go out on Friday and get as high up that leaderboard as possible and challenge. As a professional I think focusing on the bare minimum is the wrong mentality. If you miss that, then I’m driving home Friday night. Aim for the top and miss, I’m still having a great tournament!”
Friday he shot 2-over and safely made the weekend at 1-under. Saturday would be a completely different experience for the Troon man.
“So Saturday I’m playing with Guido Migliozzi. Group in front of us has local hero Matthew Jordan and Stewart Cink, group behind is Rory and Max Homa. Be lucky if I had 40 people watching me Thursday, Friday and now it’s thousands and you’re waiting on every tee as every shot Rory hits gets a huge roar.
“I’m a pretty relaxed guy and I like to have a chat. Guido and me chatted a lot on Saturday as we were waiting a lot on tees and I like a bit of banter on the course. I thought I played well on Saturday but I didn’t score as well as I would like. As a golfer you react to how you play and I felt that even though I had shot level-par, I was still happy with my performance.”
Heading into Sunday, 1-under for the tournament and the chance to play himself into automatic qualification for next year’s tournament, Michael and the field were facing terrible conditions. I asked if he practiced for that.
“Growing up in the West Coast of Scotland I’ve played in some shocking conditions. But you don’t go out and practice in the wind and rain. It’s funny, you get some Europeans in tournaments coming up to you when it’s raining saying ‘you must be buzzing’. I laugh ‘cause obviously we don’t play golf in that weather either, you wait for a dry day. So to be honest I don’t practice in those conditions. Golf is all about feel, a 3 club wind for you might be a 1 club wind for me ‘cause of how I flight the ball, so I tried to play the course my way, but it was tough.”
Sunday, Guido and him had almost no chat, both trying to stay dry and not playing their best golf. Michael felt the course was set up to play really tough as well, adding in the conditions and it led to a tough day’s scoring.
Michael finished 52nd, earning a nice wee pot of money – which I know is going into a wedding fund – but I wanted to know what the celebrations were like. Big night out with the boys, nice meal with his fiancée, where were we going?
“I just wanted to get home, mate. I was really disappointed with how I played on the Sunday and I just wanted to get home. My caddie and me jumped in the car and drove home and I spent the day in the house on the Monday and then I went to Ireland for a challenger event on the Tuesday.”
This, I would find out, is his main regret from the week.
“Hindsight is a great thing and I wouldn’t change anything from my week. Yes, I would have liked to have finished higher and automatically qualified for Troon next year but the main thing I would change is going to Ireland. I was pretty exhausted and a bit overwhelmed as it’s a crazy week. People are dragging you here, there and everywhere for interviews and other obligations and that’s great but it takes a lot out of you. I had that and then I was so annoyed with my game on the Sunday that I carried that into my next couple of tournaments. I wish I had taken some time to recover and also reflect on how well I had done.”
Outside looking in, that’s a tough one. I understand the relentless nature of the athlete who is still trying to progress in their career and wants to shake that bad round off and get some more ranking points. Then I think it would have been nice to bask in the glow of the achievement, the experience and the expected clamour for time from people like me who want that unique insight.
One thing I know for sure is that Michael is supremely focused on his golf and I have no doubt that this will not be his first and only Open. In fact, I’m away to see if there’s a bookies that will take my money on him making the cut for Troon.