Matt Ford has spent decades qualifying for the Open. Now he’s playing the greatest ever

The Claret Jug is not lifted until Sunday in St Andrews, Scotland, but England golfer Matt Ford has already secured the win of his life: qualifying for the Open Championship.

The 44-year-old has hit tens of thousands of shots in over 280 tournaments, but teeing off from the opening tee of the Old Course on Thursday will mark his first swing at a Major in his nearly two-decade pro career.

Ford turned professional in 2003, but his efforts to reach The Open began as an amateur. That included a loss in the qualifying playoffs to future Masters winner Trevor Immelman, and he’s made it to the finals multiple times since.

“I’ve been trying to figure it out the other day how many times I’ve tried,” Ford told CNN, settling for an estimate of 24 unsuccessful attempts so far.

The son of a professional footballer, Ford grew up in Swindon, England, wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps. Having first picked up a club at the age of 10, it was not until he had finished school at 18 that he devoted himself to full-time golfing.

“I loved football, but it was also so frustrating when golf is all about yourself,” said Ford.

“Although the game of golf is anything but control, there is much more control you can have in an individual sport.”

Turning pro at the age of 25, Ford got off to a strong start competing at the 2005 BMW PGA Championship (formerly the British PGA Championship) at Wentworth.

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

Challenge Tour Challenges

Five second places were highlights, but constant long-distance trips around the world on far less luxurious courses than the European and PGA Tours have taken their toll mentally and, most importantly, financially.

Only the top 10 finishers of the Challenge Tour’s 156-player field “realistically” earn enough prize money to subsidize the event’s costs, with Ford estimating that more than half of the remaining players make over $1,000 a week to lose.

By Ford’s own calculations, he’s lost more money than he’s won, and with wife Suzie and two young children to support, the pressures of literally “gambling for life” have been a challenge.

“The number of times I’ve thought about giving up this game and the way a lot of people say, ‘Get a real job’, it’s been tough,” he said.

“It’s emotional because my family has supported me. I haven’t necessarily made as much money as I would like.”

Ford shoots off the tee during the Challenge de Espana in Cadiz, Spain in May.

A major breakthrough followed in late 2014 when Ford received his card at the European Tour Qualifying School, which opened the door for him to compete in nearly 60 European Tour events over the following two years.

He lost his card before the 2017 season, but stuck with it until July when he competed in the final Open qualifier at Prince’s Golf Club in Kent, England.

A lightning start to round two put Ford in a dominant position at 5-under and headed into the final 10 holes of qualifying before four shots rang out over the next four holes to write a familiar chapter in his Open qualifying history.

“You start to ask yourself, ‘Did I screw up? What have I done? You idiot,’” he recalled.

But when Suzie and the two kids got to the last six holes after school, they watched as Ford soared to a spectacular finish. On his way to make up those four lost shots, he hit an eagle to finish 5-under and qualify as the event winner, two shots ahead of second place.

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

“The Greatest Of All Time”

Not only is Ford fulfilling his own childhood dream of playing the Open – a historic 150th edition at the legendary Old Course – but he looks forward to sharing the experience with his family.

“Sorry teacher,” his children have secured a result of their own by taking days off to watch their father compete in Scotland. And desperate to meet Tiger Woods, Ford has already made good on his promise and tweeted a picture of his daughter with the three-time Open champion on Wednesday.

“They are just as happy and excited as I am,” he said. “In the tournaments they ran with me, they could see every shot and there weren’t too many people around.

“It’s just going to get crazy at St Andrews with so many people… it’s going to be such a big event, people are saying it’s going to be one of the greatest ever.”

The experience, potential paycheck and opportunities it may bring to future DP World Tour events; Ford gives many reasons to look forward to the week. But if the goal for life was just to make it to the first tee, what’s the ultimate goal now that he’s there?

“Am I thinking of winning the tournament? No, not really,” said Ford. “But there’s no reason I can’t have a great week and who knows what may happen. This is golf and if I can walk you just don’t know.

Golf legend Tom Watson remembers his classic Open at St Andrews

“I don’t actually set myself too many specific goals other than keep a smile on my face and enjoy the week. If I can do that, hopefully I’ll score some good goals.”

Whatever the outcome, it certainly won’t be due to a lack of effort.

Ford is scheduled to tee off for his first round Thursday at 11:15am BST (6:15am ET).