By Joy Chakravarty
PORTRUSH, July 17: Matthew Baldwin is acutely aware that qualifying for this year’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush is an opportunity to turn around his career, but he is making a conscious effort just to enjoy the week and take what comes his way.
The 33-year-old from Southport started the season in blistering form winning the MENA Tour Qualifying School B Stage and Journey to Jordan-1, the opening event of the schedule, and leads the Order of Merit at the halfway stage.
However, things haven’t been great after that on the Challenge Tour, where he is trying to get back his card on the European Tour. In seven starts, he has missed three cuts and has just one top-15 finish (Challenge de Espana).
It was at the Final Qualifying of The Open that Baldwin showed he had not lost his touch when he finished third at St Annes Old Links after superb rounds of seven-under par 65 followed by a 70.
Speaking on the eve of the 148th Open, Baldwin said: “I am here to enjoy my week. I know I have a job to turn my season around.
“It’s my fifth major. It’s great to qualify, but this is the reason we play golf – end of the day we all want to be playing the biggest tournaments in the world and for me, and for every other British lad, this is the biggest tournament in the world.
“The MENA Tour was great for me, but it would have been better if I had fired on from there. I don’t think there is anything wrong with my game. I am just getting frustrated, to be honest. I feel like my golf is good enough to be playing on the European Tour, but when you are playing the Challenge Tour and hitting the occasional bad shots, it does become frustrating for me. I feel like I should be doing better and I end up compounding errors with errors.
“I just need to enjoy my golf, and hopefully, that is what we are going to do this week. I am a qualifier and not exempt like many of the other guys. So, let’s see where this goes.
“The biggest thing for me would be not to beat myself up for hitting one or two poor shots here and there. I know I can do well…there’s really no reason why I can’t. I played a practice round on Monday with Tony Finau and six holes with Phil Mickelson. They are world-class players obviously, but watching them, they do not hit it any better than most of us in the field.”
Baldwin said he’d recommend the MENA Tour to anyone as one of the best development tours, but hoped he did not have to return to the Middle East during the second half of the season.
“The Tour’s run so well and played on lovely conditioned golf courses. I was able to go to Jordan and see Petra and stuff like that. It was great as a life experience too. I spent almost three months in Dubai and met loads of new people and made a few friends for life,” explained Baldwin.
“I’d recommend it for anyone at the beginning of the season. The prize money is good and the Tour is only going to get bigger and better.
“I’d like to play the second half of the season, but hopefully I don’t have to. I mean, the second half clashes with a lot of events on the Challenge Tour and I’d like to be in a position where I am contending for a European Tour spot. If I do well before that and secure my card, I’d definitely love to go back and play a couple of events.”
Baldwin has previous experience of playing Royal Portrush, when he finished tied 44th at the 2012 Irish Open, but said he was having trouble recollecting the lay-out from his memory.
“I played the Irish Open here. It’s such a great golf course, but funnily enough, I don’t remember much of the golf course from back then. It could be because they have changed some holes and the lines are a bit different and it threw me a little bit,” said Baldwin.
“We play so many golf courses. It is easy to get them all mixed up. Well, compared to knowing the golf course before I arrived from memory, I don’t think not remembering it completely is a problem. I am sure I will have it all mapped out before I start on Thursday.”
Baldwin will start his campaign on Thursday at 1115 local time (1415 UAE time).
The MENA Tour by Arena is returning to the world schedule after a year of restructuring and will feature 10 tournaments in 2019. It will continue to provide Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) points, thus making it a perfect pathway for ambitious young professional to the bigger tours, and for the players from the region to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The first half of the 2019 season, comprising five tournaments and the Qualifying School, was held in February and March this year. The second half of the schedule begins with the Journey To Jordan-2 at Ayla Golf Club in Aqaba, Jordan, from September 29.