yorkshire’S Joe Dean and Nick McCarthy, making their Open debuts at Royal Birkdale this week, practised yesterday alongside Ryder Cup duo Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick.
It gave both Hillsborough’s Dean and Moortown’s McCarthy a chance to sample the sort of crowds that will be likely to follow them should they achieve their initial target this week – making the halfway cut as high up the leaderboard as they can.
They both compete on the EuroPro Tour and, with Fitzpatrick, formed a Yorkshire triumvirate in a group completed by former world No 1 and four-time major winner McIlroy.
Dean had chosen the group after speaking to Fitzpatrick on Sunday, with the Sheffielder telling the 2015 English men’s amateur champion to stick his name down on the start sheet next to his own if a place was available.
McCarthy, meanwhile, had gone through the available time slots with the man in charge of allocating places – and as soon as he saw McIlroy’s name asked to be placed in the 2.30pm group.
“I was scrolling through the list with the guy who was doing the tee times and he said, ‘When do you want to play?’,” said McCarthy. “I was looking for big names and all of a sudden I saw Rory’s name, and Matt’s and Joe’s, and I thought, ‘perfect’.
“Then I walked out the door and I thought, ‘What have I done? The crowds are going to be massive’.”
Massive they were, to the extent that Dean almost did not make it to the 10th tee on time.
He and his girlfriend and caddie Emily Lyle got talking with some people on the way, and Dean said: “The next thing Rory has zoomed past us and I thought, ‘We’re going to be late’.
“Matt had teed off, Nick had teed off, Rory had teed off – and I was running up the banking to get to the tee.
“I was, like, ‘Wow, I’m making Rory McIlroy wait for me’. Luckily I was able to hit it straight – and I think I was the only one to find the fairway at that hole.”
McIlroy numbers among McCarthy’s favourite players and the Northern Irishman’s standing grew yesterday on a day that the Moortown man described as “awesome, absolutely awesome.”
He continued: “Rory McIlroy was my favourite golfer before and he’s gone even higher now. He’s an absolute legend.
“And Matt Fitzpatrick as well. I’ve never, ever heard a bad word about him and you can see why.”
He admits he was a little concerned when he and Fitzpatrick had both driven off with McIlroy nowhere to be seen, but the former Open champion made a last-minute entrance – although not quite as late as Dean’s.
“I was about to walk off the tee and Fitzy goes, ‘Just hold on, he is coming, he’s coming straight to the tee’,” said McCarthy. “So he did come and I thought, ‘brilliant’.”
As they played, McCarthy and McIlroy talked about all manner of topics other than golf, but Dean, for a time, was somewhat quieter.
“I’m not great at small chit-chat so I kept to myself,” said Dean, “but then we hit tee shots down 18 and before I knew it me and Rory were talking about drivers and other equipment – and then Padraig Harrington (another Irish former Open title-winner) was stood next to us and talking – and it was a bit surreal.
“Both of them are really great guys so it was great to play with them.”
McCarthy, who had played the course on Friday and will play it again today and tomorrow, decided to savour as much of the experience of playing with two Tour winners as he could, while also taking some notes about the course.
“I saw it as a treat,” he said. “It was just an absolute treat to play with these guys.
“It was an absolute joy just to speak to Rory and I made the most of it.”
So did his father Dave, a former Yorkshire county player who is caddying for his son this week – and who on occasion became a little distracted.
“My dad loved it, although I think he got a bit sidetracked at times and wasn’t ready when I asked him for a yardage,” laughed McCarthy.
“I had to rein him in a bit and said, ‘Stop looking around, Dad, I need a yardage here’. I might deduct a bit from his pay at the end of the week. In fact, he’ll be lucky to get any.”
McCarthy conceded that he had not played his best in the exalted company, but joked: “I made contact with the ball – that was the main thing.”
On his play, Dean said: “I am not going to lie, it was a bit intimidating, but Rory was a little wayward himself and was nowhere near firing or on form. But it was nice to know that he’s still human.
“Birkdale’s not the widest golf course either. It’s a hell of a lot different off the back tees and with the rough grown up a little bit.”
After the round, Dean sought treatment at the on-site mobile physiotherapy cabin from Paul Farquharson.
“I was being treated by Paul at one end, and Emily was sat down near me,” he said. “Em said, ‘Oh, did you see (defending champion Henrik) Stenson turn up in the Concept car with the Claret Jug?
“There was Jon Rahm (recent winner of the Irish Open) next to me, and (Holland’s) Joost Luiten next to Rahm and they both looked at Em a bit – because on the next bed to them was Stenson.”
Former champion Mark O’Meara will hit the first shot of the 146th Open Championship on Thursday.
O’Meara, who won the second major of his career when the Open was staged at Birkdale in 1998, will tee off at 6.35am alongside fellow American Ryan Moore and England’s Chris Wood.
Wood finished fifth at Birkdale in 2008 and won the silver medal as leading amateur.