Like every hopeful, Gaurav Ghei grew up aspiring to play The Open Championship one day. It was a norm alright, but he had another reason to feel an affinity. Of the four Majors, the VHS tapes from the championship were the only ones compatible with Indian video cassette recorders those days.
It became an annual ritual as no sooner the event got over, the wait started for the tapes to make their way to the Ghei household. So when Johnnie Walker volunteered to help a bunch of Asian Tour golfers qualify in 1997, Ghei began living his dream.
Backed by a strong world ranking, he was confident of starting a trend by becoming the first Indian to qualify for a Major. In a field of around 100, Ghei finished second. Hitting a lot of irons from the tee and solid play around the greens got him to nine-under with rounds of 68 and 67 on the short and tight links-style course.
Finishing shortly after noon, he was certain of making it, but confirmation took some time to come. Though happy, he wished for more. Daniel Chopra was in the playoff and Ghei wanted his childhood friend to make the trip to Royal Troon, the venue for this week’s 145th Open, as well. But that was not to be.
The Irvine course in Glasgow, the venue for the qualifiers, wasn’t far from Royal Troon, but the conditions and atmosphere were daunting for a first-timer. “The toughest part was the preparation like getting a caddy, collecting the credentials or accessing the locker room.”
Handed a 4.30pm tee-off on Thursday, Ghei got nervous by the crowd on the 1st tee. “So many people by the sides, I was scared I would hit someone,” he said. Spotting a known face in the sea of humanity helped somewhat but the roar that went up every now and then was intimidating. It was as if he were in a stadium.
Despite the wind howling in the ear, and “hay fields” as fairways aggravating the challenge, the rookie failed to comprehend why experienced hands were happy to just keep “plugging away”. “For me, the mindset was different. It was the British Open, how could one play for bogey?”
When Round II was over and he had shot an identical 80 to miss cut by a distance, Ghei was wiser. “In a Major, there will be times when you have to swallow pride, and understand a bogey is good enough on certain holes,” he said while explaining how tough it was to adjust his chipping and putting in the conditions.
Ghei, 47, came close to qualifying in 1998 and 2000, and while there is a hint of regret, recollecting from Royal Troon acts as a balm. Being a part of the 1997 official film, shot during the practice round as the TV crew followed him for a couple of holes, brings a smile, as does being mobbed by autograph seekers. But the greatest joy was to watch the Tricolour flutter over The Open leaderboard.