TWELVE months ago Ian Keenan was on the brink of quitting golf altogether.
But today he finds himself teeing up alongside the world’s greatest players as the 141st Open unfolds across the bunker-strewn links of Royal Lytham.
The 36-year-old Wirral professional successfully negotiated the nerve-wracking qualifying process at Southport and Ainsdale to claim one of three starting places available on the Fylde course – and fulfil a golfing dream.
Keenan, who is attached to Royal Liverpool, has long harboured ambitions of playing among golf’s elite players and gets his chance today after coming so close to calling it quits.
The 36-year-old had reached the second tier of European golf last year, looking to make that final step up from the Challenge Tour.
But as his sponsorship money dried up and the prize money was not matching the bills for plying his trade across the Continent, Keenan was forced to concede that the cost of chasing his dream, both professionally and at home, was too high.
“I tried to stop playing,” he said. “But I keep coming back to it.”
Keenan, who has been working part-time with a wall insulation firm, is grateful to the support he has received from friends and colleagues as he rekindles his burning desire to play at the highest level.
That ambition has this year seen him try and qualify for the US Open, the French Open and his home Open.
He came close in America, shooting five under par to win the regional qualifying event at Lake Joliffe in Florida.
He failed to make it through from the final qualifying event, held at Walton Heath, but hopes that chastening experience will stand him in good stead.
“Walton Heath was an amazing experience, but I did not handle it particularly well,” said the dad-of-one. “I had gone from thinking I would never play tournament golf again to sharing a buggy to the practice ground with Ross Fisher.
“But I am still a professional golfer and still believe there are things I can achieve in the game. I feel more confident of being able to deal with everything this week will throw at me.
“I’ve always wanted to play in the best golf tournaments I can and I feel I have earned the right to be at the Open.”
For a player without the entourage of a management company behind him being involved at a high profile event like the Open means sorting everything out for himself, from practice times or finding somewhere to stay to commercially making the most of his time in the limelight.
“I have had great backing from my friends, including Chris Cunliffe, who I have known since we were five years of age, who runs the Real Pork Crackling company who are supporting me, while Blowers Watches are also backing me,” he said. “The fact that they have faith in me keeps me going.
“Royal Liverpool, too, have always been very supportive and I have received so many goodwill messages after qualifying. My Twitter account has been overflowing, with a lot of players who have been in a similar position offering advice and congratulations.
“I know one Open appearance does not mean I have made it, but I think it is a reward for my efforts over the years.”
Keenan is hoping to use the fact that he has age and experience on his side to avoid the potential pitfalls for an Open rookie. He played some social golf at the weekend at Royal Liverpool and Royal Birkdale with American star Bill Haase before playing a few holes at Lytham on Monday and Tuesday, followed by a rest day before the real cut and thrust starts today.
“Someone in my position can end up over practising,” he explained, “playing too many rounds or trying out too much new kit, which takes the focus away from the event itself. I have also told myself once the spikes are on, the phone goes off so I can stick to my plans.
“I had a look at the course 10 days ago, as much to help me build up a mental picture of how things might pan out.
“Even just making that walk under the stands to the first tee is something I want to be prepared for.
“My first impressions were that it is a course like Hoylake or S&A and suits my game.
“I have grown up on links golf and generally keep the ball in play.
“Keeping out of the bunkers (Royal Lytham has 206) is the number one priority.
“It would be great if I could turn out to be one of the surprise packages of the event.”
However the Open pans out for Keenan – and there is a guarantee of at least £2,350 prize money – he intends to play some EuroPro Tour events over the remainder of the season with his golfing dream burning bright again.