If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then try 23 more times.
The Claret Jug won’t be lifted in St Andrews, Scotland, till Sunday, but English golfer Matt Ford has already secured the victory of a lifetime: qualifying for the Open Championship.
The 44-year-old has struck tens of thousands of shots in over 280 tournaments, but when he drives from the opening tee of the Old Course Thursday, it will mark his first swing at a major, in a professional career spanning almost two decades.
Ford turned professional in 2003, but his efforts to reach The Open began as an amateur. They included a qualifying playoff defeat to future Masters winner Trevor Immelman, and he has since made it to final qualifying numerous times.
“I tried to work it out the other day actually, how many times I’ve tried,” Ford told CNN, settling on an estimate of 24 attempts without success until now.
The son of a professional footballer, Ford grew up in the English town of Swindon wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps. Having only picked up a club for the first time aged 10, it wasn’t until he had finished school at 18 he threw himself into pursuing golf full-time.
“I loved football but it was also so frustrating, whereas golf is just down to yourself,” Ford said.
“Although the game of golf is anything but control, you still can control a lot more in an individual sport.”
Turning professional at age 25, Ford made a strong start, competing at the 2005 BMW PGA Championship (formerly the British PGA Championship) in Wentworth.
Competing on a European Tour event gave the Englishman a huge confidence boost, but by 2013 he was close to walking away from the sport. Despite a handful of further appearances on the European Tour (now the DP World Tour), Ford has spent the vast majority of his career on its feeder series, the Challenge Tour.
Challenge Tour challenges
Five runner-up finishes have been highlights, but constant long hauls 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 finishers of the Challenge Tour’s 156 player field “realistically” earn enough prize money to subsidize the cost of playing the event, with Ford estimating more than half the remaining players lose over $1,000 a week.
By Ford’s own reckoning he’s lost money more often than he’s won it, and with wife Suzie and two young children to support, the pressure of quite literally ‘playing to live’ has been challenging.
“The amount of times I’ve thought about giving up this game and as 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’d like to make this comfortable.”
A big breakthrough followed in late 2014 when Ford got his card at the European Tour Qualifying School, opening the door for him to compete in almost 60 European Tour events across the following two years.
He lost his card ahead of the 2017 season, but kept plugging away until he found himself competing at the final Open qualifying event at Prince’s Golf Club in Kent, England, in July.
A blitzing 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 dropped across the next four holes looked set to pen a familiar chapter in his Open qualifying story.
“You start wondering, ‘Have I blown it? What have I done? You idiot,’” he recalled.
Yet when Suzie and the two children arrived for the last six holes after school, they watched Ford soar to a spectacular finish. He shot an eagle en route to picking up those four lost strokes to finish 5-under and qualify as event winner, two shots clear of second place.
‘The biggest ever’
As well as realizing his own childhood dream of playing the Open – a historic 150th edition on the legendary Old Course no less – Ford is equally thrilled to share the experience with his family.
“Sorry teachers,” his kids 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 picture of his daughter with the three-time Open champion on Wednesday.
“They are just as happy and as excited as I am,” he said. “The tournaments they’ve walked around with me, they’ve been able to watch every shot and there haven’t been too many people around.
“It’s just gonna make it crazy at St Andrews with that many people … it’s gonna be such a big event, people are saying it’s gonna be one of the biggest ever.”
The experience, the potential paycheck, and the opportunities it may spring for future DP World Tour events; Ford cites plenty of reasons to be excited about the week. Yet when the lifelong aim was just to make it to the first tee, what is the end goal now he’s about to be there?
“Am I thinking of winning the tournament? No, not really,” Ford said. “But there’s no reason why I can’t have a great week and who knows what can happen. This is golf and if I can get on a run, you just don’t know.
“I’m not really setting myself too many specific goals apart from keep a smile on my face and enjoy the week. If I do that, hopefully I’ll shoot some good scores.”
Whatever the result, it certainly won’t be for a lack of effort.
Ford is scheduled to tee off for his first round at 11:15 a.m. BST (6:15 a.m. ET) Thursday.