The Claret Jug won’t be lifted in St Andrews, Scotland, until Sunday, but England golfer Matt Ford has already won the victory of his life: qualifying for the Open Championship.

The 44-year-old has hit tens of thousands of shots in more than 280 tournaments, but when he tees off from the opening tee of the Old Course on Thursday, it will mark his first major tournament swing in a professional career. spanning almost two decades. .

Ford turned pro in 2003, but his efforts to reach the Open began as an amateur. They included a playoff loss to eventual Masters winner Trevor Immelman, and he has since reached the final qualifier on multiple occasions.

“I tried to fix it the other day actually, how many times have I tried,” Ford told CNN, settling for an estimate of 24 unsuccessful attempts so far.

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 chosen a club for the first time at the age of 10, it was only after completing his studies at 18 that he took up golf full time.

“I loved football, but it was also very frustrating, whereas golf is all up to you,” Ford said.

“Although the game of golf is anything but controlled, you can still control a lot more in an individual sport.”

Turning professional at 25, Ford got off to a good start by competing in the 2005 BMW PGA Championship (formerly the British PGA Championship) at Wentworth.

Competing in a European Tour event gave the Englishman a huge boost of confidence, but in 2013 he was on the verge of stepping away from the sport. Despite a handful of other appearances on the European Tour (now the DP World Tour), Ford has spent the vast majority of his career on his powerhouse series, the Challenge Tour.

Challenge Tour Challenges

Five finalists were highlights, but the constant long drives around the world to far less luxurious courses than the European and PGA Tours took their toll mentally and, most importantly, financially.

Only the top 10 players of the 156-player Challenge Tour “realistically” earn enough money to subsidize the cost of the event, with Ford estimating that more than half of the remaining players are losing more than $1,000 a week.

By Ford’s own calculations, he lost money more often than he won, and with his wife Suzie and two young children to support, the pressure to “play for a living” was tough.

“The number of times I’ve thought about quitting this game and, like a lot of people say, ‘finding a good 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 would like for this to be comfortable.”

Ford shoots from the tee at the Challenge de Espana in Cadiz, Spain in May.

A big breakthrough followed in late 2014 when Ford earned his European Tour Qualifying School card, opening the door for him to compete in nearly 60 European Tour events over the next two years.

He lost his card before the 2017 season, but kept going until he found himself playing in the final Open qualifying event at Prince’s Golf Club in Kent, England, in July.

A lightning start to round two put Ford in a commanding position within 5 heading into the final 10 qualifying holes, before four shots fell on the next four holes that looked set to write a familiar chapter in its Open qualifying history.

“You start thinking, ‘Did I mess it up? What did I do? You idiot,'” he recalls.

Yet when Suzie and the two kids arrived for the final six holes after school, they watched Ford soar to a spectacular finish. He fired an eagle en route to picking up those four loose shots to finish 5 under and qualify as the event winner, two shots clear of second place.

Ford lines up a putt on the 14th green during the Italian Challenge Open in Viterbo, Italy in July.

“The Greatest of All Time”

As well as fulfilling his own childhood dream of playing the Open – a historic 150th edition on the legendary Old Course no less – Ford is also excited to share the experience with his family.

“Sorry, teachers,” his children got their own result with days off to watch their dad compete in Scotland. And desperate to meet Tiger Woods, Ford has already delivered on his promise by tweeting a photo of his daughter with the three-time Open champion on Wednesday.

“They’re as happy and excited as I am,” he said. “The tournaments they went through with me, they were able to watch every shot and there weren’t too many people.

“It’s just going to drive him crazy in St Andrews with so many people… it’s going to be such a big event, people say it’s going to be one of the biggest ever.”

The experience, potential salary and opportunities it can create for future DP World Tour events; Ford cites plenty of reasons to be excited about the week. Yet, where the lifelong goal was simply to hit the first tee, what is the end goal now that he’s about to be there?

“Do I think I’ll win the tournament? No, not really,” Ford said. “But there’s no reason I can’t have a good week and who knows what can happen. It’s golf and if I can run you just don’t know.

Golf legend Tom Watson remembers his classic Open at St Andrews

“I don’t really set myself too many specific goals other than to keep smiling and enjoy the week. If I do that, hopefully I’ll shoot some good scores.”

Whatever the outcome, it will certainly not be for lack of effort.

Ford is due to start its first lap at 11:15 a.m. BST (6:15 a.m. ET) on Thursday.

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