By Chris Kowalczyk

In 2015, VCU rising senior Alister Balcombe enjoyed perhaps the most significant achievement of his golf career when he qualified for the 144th British Open at St. Andrews. Balcombe, a native of Clevedon, England, advanced through two local qualifying rounds to reach the Open as an amateur. Balcombe shot 6-over (74-76) at St. Andrews, and although he didn’t make the cut, he did finish in front of notable professionals Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo and Tom Watson. Fresh off his first season at VCU, the former junior college standout looked back on his time at The Open Championship.

BTU: You had to advance through both regional and sectional qualifying to make The Open. How difficult was that?
AB: It’s a lot different than even high-level amateur stuff, because you’re playing against professionals, rather than just amateurs. So there’s kind of a different feel to the field. It’s a different level than what you’re used to.

BTW: How did it feel once you know you’d made The Open?
AB: It was kind of weird. I teed off at like, 8 a.m., and then we finished at 7:30 or something, so it’s kind of hard to realize after 36 holes of golf that you’re actually going to be playing in The Open. It didn’t sink in until I actually got up to St. Andrews. It was sort of hard to understand.
BTU: Had you even been to St. Andrews?
AB: No, I hadn’t. I’ve spent a lot of time in Scotland and played a lot of golf there, but I hadn’t actually played the old course or any other course at St. Andrews.
BTU: What was your initial reaction?
AB: They picked me and my brother up from the airport, and I didn’t have my clubs yet…so I just asked the guy to drive us down to the course to have a look. With all the grandstands and stuff, it seemed so weird. I’ve watched the Alfred Dunhill, a European Tour event they have at the old course, and the grandstands are no way as big. They probably have half they do for The Open, so it’s just nuts compared to anything else.
BTU: What was it like to rub elbows with some of the big names in golf?
AB: I actually played the last 4-5 holes [of a practice round] with Tom Watson and Brandt Snedeker that day, so that was fun.
BTU: How did that come about?
AB: I played the first three holes and just decided to go and play the last five. As I was cutting across [Watson] was coming up 15, and I said, ‘do you mind if [I join]?’ I didn’t realize until he got closer. I was like, oh, it’s Tom Watson. He and Sneds were both really nice. My locker was right next to Tom Watson’s, as it happened. It went Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and me.
BTU: What were you able to take away from playing with two great pros like that?
AB: That was when it really sunk in that I was there, on 18, watching Watson putt. I got a picture with him and my brother on the bridge. It was pretty cool. How well he controls the ball is ridiculous. He’s in the mid 60s and still hits it so good. I hit three shots off the first tee because I couldn’t hit it in play. I hit it three times and they kept throwing me balls, just like, ‘have another go’. That’s probably the most nervous I’ve ever been, that first tee shot with Tom Watson standing behind me.
BTU: Was it tough not to be a fan and ask a hundred questions?
AB: I decided I wasn’t going to do that. They’re trying to play a golf tournament, and they don’t want some 19-year-old kid asking them 50,000 questions and trying to distract them from what they’re trying to do. One thing I did ask was, when there’s fans - because I’ve never played with more than 20 people watching me – when you’re walking back to a tee, where do you look? It sounds like a weird question, but if you’re walking back and there are 100 people around the back of a tee, who do you look at? They said, just get your yardage book out and look at something like that because otherwise you’d just be looking like around.
BTU: Were you nervous, once it finally came time to play?
AB: My tee time was second to last, like 3:04 or something, so I had all day to just sit and wait. I don’t really get nervous when I’m at the golf course, but I can’t sleep the night before tournaments, even college tournaments. I get nervous the night before. It’s just tension. When I saw the late tee time, that was the worst thing for me, because I knew I’d be bouncing around all day, waiting to play. The first tee shot was just a little bit nerve-racking, but I hit a good one. Past that, the first hole was tough to get through. But once I hit it, I hit a really good tee shot. I hit a good wedge shot to like 30 feet and two-putted. That calmed me down a lot. Then it was just trying to play golf the best I could, rather than worrying about everything.
BTU: Are there any moments that stand out in your mind?
AB: The biggest thing was on No. 7. I hit a 3-wood way too far through the fairway. My caddie gave me the wrong club. So I hit it into a fairway bunker like, 350, though the fairway, and I had virtually no shot. I had to hit a bunker shot out as hard as I could to get it pin high. I had about 160 feet down the green because there’s a massive grandstand….so there’s probably close to 300 people in those grandstands. I hit my putt down to like, eight feet, and holed the second one, and there was a massive roar. That was fun.
BTU: What was your approach to the tournament, mentally?
AB: I talked to my coach and my brother before we went up there, and I said, I’m not just going to play for the experience. This is a huge springboard opportunity. There’s so many people that go play, and that’s where their career starts. People that go there and play well, that’s their start. I was going to compete for the silver medal and play as best I could. A lot of people would say, you’ve got there, just enjoy it, but I was trying to play very competitive. I wasn’t just there to make up the numbers.
BTU: What did that environment teach you? How are the pros different?
AB: There’s probably more exceptional ball strikers in college than there are on tour. It’s just the way they control the flight with wedges, especially, is something that, if they’re inside 100 yards, and they’ve got a decent pin, they’re going to hit it close. It’s going to be inside 10 feet, and then their make percentage from there is solid. If they drive it well, they’re going to make a lot of birdies. Their control of the ball was so much better than mine was at that stage. That’s something I’ve worked on a lot over the last two years. It’s still not anywhere new good enough, but yeah, it’s definitely something I took from that. They’re all very composed. You’d be able to tell who the amateurs were and who the professionals were, just from how they walk around and handle themselves.
BTU: What did you take away from the experience? Is there anything you’d do differently?
AB: Obviously I wanted to play seriously and play the best I could, but if I could’ve taken a step back - because I don’t really remember that much; it’s just a little clump memory - I wish I enjoyed it a lot more. I always say, I think the final day of qualifying was almost more fun than actually playing The Open. I was so engrossed in playing well, I almost didn’t enjoy it as much as I should’ve.