Welcome to the Royal and Ancient Junior Open. Some 160 young golfers – boys and girls from 80 countries – carry the golfing dreams of their nations into the most multinational competitive sports event in the UK outside of the Olympics next week.
They will gather at what is arguably the Fylde coast’s most beautiful, yet challenging, golf course – Fairhaven.
Those in the know will flock to watch them before the eyes of the world turn upon the golfing superstars at the other Open at the Royal Lytham and St Annes.
Fairhaven features the rising stars of tomorrow’s golf world. Established in 1994, the Junior Open has been part of the formative careers of a number of the current greats, such as 2010 US Women’s Open Champion, Paula Creamer, and last year’s US Open Champion, Rory McIlroy, who both contested the 54-hole event for players aged 16 and under.
This year England will be represented by Gabriella Cowley, 16, of Essex, and Stefan Gnyla, 13, of Warwickshire.
They will be watched by, among others, Millie Jakeman, nine, one of the youngest members at Fairhaven Golf Club.
Millie can’t wait for the fun to start. She also gets to see The Open, the grown up one, as her dad, keen player Colin, is helping marshal the event.
Millie, who attends St Thomas’ CE Primary School, St Annes, says: “I’d like to watch them play and see if I can learn from them. I’d also love to see more girls get into golf. Some of my friends just don’t see why I like it. Now even my mum is taking it up. She wants more time with us.”
Millie’s one to watch. Her hand-eye co-ordination exceptional. She packs a fair old whack too, her dad admits. “She’ll outplay me one day,” he adds.
Club secretary Bob Thompson predicts: “Millie’s a star in the making, right temperament, good little player, and she really listens to advice.”
Not only does Millie get to see The Open, which runs from Thursday to Sunday, but her club hosts the other Open, the prestigious Junior Open, from Monday to Wednesday, which will be opened by Darren Clarke the reigning Open champion.
Both are run by the R&A, golf’s governing body. Royal Lytham features the superstars, some rising, others falling, some – such as Tiger Woods – on a comeback.
But Fairhaven is the global golf village for the 16s and under, picked up with their chaperones tomorrow at Manchester Airport and under the wing of the R&A for the duration of both championships.
The opening ceremonials at Fairhaven start at 6pm Sunday after practice rounds. Usually a current or ex-Open champion attends. The coveted Claret Jug, the Open’s trophy, will also be on display.
Junior (girls) captain Emily Shea and vice captain Eleni Cullen, 16, say first timers shouldn’t be fooled by the beauty of the course. Players regularly log sightings of rare butterflies, pheasant, deer, even natterjack toads on the ecology award-winning course – but they also negotiate 122 links bunkers. “It’s really challenging,” says Emily.
Both will assist at The Open, hospitality and other duties, but are thrilled at their club’s coup. “We’ll have the best young players in the world here,” says Eleni, former captain, who says she was “dragged to golf for the first five years” by her golf-mad parents.
Her dad Chris is junior organiser and club vice-captain. Emily adds: “The club really encourages young players, and listens to what we say.”
Ciaran Hay and Chris Cartmell, both 15, agree. “You don’t get talked down to here,” says Ciaran. He admits he was a little put off by the “thought of the posh clothes and image”, but adds: “I’ve got into all that, the tradition, the clothes. I even like purple trousers.”
Chris, who’s helping out at The Open, too, hopes the junior event will inspire younger players. “We’ve a good cross-section, but there are more males than females. There’s far less money in the women’s game, which isn’t fair.”
Ciaran is rooting for Sergio Garcia to lift the Claret Jug. Many of the juniors rate Rory.
The R&A, golf’s governing body, presents The Open and Junior Open every two years, in the same week, usually at nearby venues. Fairhaven’s secretary Bob explains: “Around 80 nations have so far entered a team, which makes this event the most multi-national sporting event in the UK this year, other than the Olympics.
“For many, it will be the first time they have visited the UK, for some their first time abroad.
“It may be overshadowed by The Open, but all clubs play their part in that too. The Junior Open is now a major championship for juniors throughout the world and continues to grow. You will see the stars of the future there. It’s already produced some of the fastest rising young players.”
They breed them tough at Fairhaven, a course designed by five-time Open Champion James Braid. The club’s 72-hole championship for under-18s is rated second only to the national championships for young golfers.
Secretary Bob concludes: “Fairhaven really supports junior golf. The juniors of today who will be the adult members of golf clubs tomorrow – or for the very lucky ones even an Open champion.”