Taking the pins in: The view from the graveyard shift

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It’s 4pm in St Andrews, and Lars van Meijel, Jack Floydd and Ronan Mullarney are preparing for golf’s graveyard shift.

The three men who will go out in Game 52 on the first day of The 150th Open are all on the putting green, ready to finally get their first major championship underway. On a day when balls were in the air at 6.35am, this unlucky trio have the tee reserved from 4.16pm, and it can’t come soon enough.

As they wait on the first tee, the marquee group of Will Zalatoris, Tony Finau and Hideki Matsuyama are finishing up on the 18th, signalling a mass exodus of fans. By the time they’ve made it to the scoring hut, Game 52 is ready to get under way.

In truth, they had been ready for hours.

As they walk down the first fairway, it’s clear that a small, but dedicated bunch of spectators will be following these golfers, going against the flow of spectators heading back towards the clubhouse.

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At a time when Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm are all competing on the same course, the ranks of support for these three extends to family, friends, and not much more.

The group all begin with regulation pars. “Two better than Woods already,” an excited Irish voice exclaims, clearly aware of the former world No.1’s double-bogey start.

That voice was one of many who had made the journey from Galway to follow Mullarney, the 27-year-old pro who is ranked 1,806th on the Official World Golf Rankings. For him, and his fans, today is a special day.

While Mullarney’s fans are pleased to see him, some of the marshals around the links might be even happier.

Ronan Mullarney

“Hallelujah,” says the steward on the fifth tee. “I wouldn’t swap it for the world, but God, standing up all day, it’s not easy.”

For him, the day is over. But for our three competitors, it has barely started. As they step onto the sixth tee, 6pm has come and gone. Not that Mullarney is worried. An eagle at the previous par-5 meant he was back on the correct side of par. It also meant that his vocal group of fans had something to shout about.

“I heard he was on Sky Sports for around 30 seconds,” a clubmate of his tells me. “It’s like a f***ing movie this, honestly. I mean, he was warming up next to Jon Rahm earlier. Jesus, that’s mental.”

Mental indeed, and things are only going to get stranger. As the group gets to the 14th tee, light is already beginning to fade. It’s not what you want to see as you walk to a tee box that already hosts the two groups playing in front of you.

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For Floydd, the day isn’t going the way he’d hoped. A short miss on the 13th leaves him with a double-bogey, and a long wait with a sour taste in his mouth. “This wait can’t be helping anyone,” his short game coach tells me. “We’ve done enough waiting today already.”

That wait totalled 35 minutes. An ideal time for spectators to grab dinner from the surrounding eateries. Or it would have been, had they still been open.

The sentiment of Floydd’s coach is echoed by the rest of the dwindling following. For another of Mullarney’s clubmates, the consensus is clear; there’s no way this group isgetting finished this evening.

“Sure, it’s getting dark already and they’ve still got four to play.

“It can’t be helping them. It’s a shame because I know Ronan and I’m sending the updates back into the WhatsApp group back home. But this waiting, it’s not good.”

Soon, it’s 9.30pm and dark. As in properly dark. 

van Meijel’s caddie tilts the face of his watch towards his player’s face. They exchange a knowing look. On any other occasion, these three players would call it quits and head for home. Yet, in the most important round of their lives, they soldier on, hoping to keep any darkness or fatigue-induced catastrophes off the card for the remaining three holes.

Remarkably, the group makes it to the Road Hole. By now, the Irish contingent has enjoyed some well-earned refreshments. Their player’s ball heads over the Old Course Hotel to rapturous applause. “What a swing he’s got on him, by the way!”

While there’s celebration at a near-perfect tee shot on golf’s most feared hole outside the ropes, inside, there’s worry. “What’s the chances of actually finishing?” the walking scorer asks a rules official, who has been present since the 14th fairway.

His response is a simple nod.

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By 10.15pm, the final group of the day has made it to the 18th hole – fully six hours after they had left the first tee. Guided by the lights inside the R&A clubhouse, and scoreboards that had been lit up to a bright orange glow, all three tee off.

“Any idea?” asks one of Mullarney’s supporters.

“Nope,” is the reply. “Forward, I think. Maybe.”

Thankfully, all three balls did move forward, and ten minutes later, it was finally time for handshakes. Mullarney has carded a one-over 73; van Meijel, a two-over 74; and Floydd, a three-over 75. Under the circumstances, good shooting all round from the inexperienced (at least at this level) trio.

“I’ve never had a tee time like that in my life,” said Mullarney afterwards. “It was something new. A few of the lads from back home came up to my hotel room. We went for lunch, then went back up to the hotel room.

“It was long. A very long day. The support I had, it was brilliant. Vocal, and I knew it would be. I have to thank them for that.”

They’re a hardy bunch alright. Then again, they’d need to be.

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