From midnight golf and lava clubs to the British Open
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (AP) He comes from a place where they play midnight golf and the most precious item in the bag is a rusty ”lava club,” used to hit balls off rock formations strewn across the fairways.
Haraldur Magnus will become the first Icelandic man to play in any of golf’s four majors at the British Open this week, and his story sums up the charm of the oldest championship in the sport.
”Haddi,” as he prefers to be known, is ranked 1,089th and plays in the Nordic Golf League – basically the third tier of European golf comprising tournaments in Scandinavia and Spain. Sometimes there are only a handful of spectators, compared to the daily crowds of 40,000 that are expected at Carnoustie from Thursday, and he has earned less than 4,000 euros ($4,650) in prize money this year.
Magnus was among the first players to tee off in final qualifying for the British Open at Prince’s Golf Club in southern England in early July. After posting a score of 2 under, he set the alarm on his phone, turned it off and took a nap.
”It’s been a little overwhelming,” said Magnus, speaking on the practice range at Carnoustie, where he hit shots next to 2016 British Open champion Henrik Stenson. ”But overall it’s been fantastic.”
It’s a short flight to Scotland from his home in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, but Carnoustie – with its perfectly manicured fairways and immaculate greens – is another world for Magnus.
”We’re just way up north on a frosted island, so it’s as good as it can get and you have to give credit to all the green-keepers,” Magnus said. ”We have some unique courses, some lava-surrounded courses.
”Many amateurs have 13 clubs in their bag and a lava club. It’s an old, rusty thing which they can hit off rocks.”
With its long summers and dark winters, the golf season in Iceland lasts only five months.
”But we have a month where it’s 24-hour daylight and have tournaments where international tourists tee up at midnight – midnight golf,” Magnus said. ”Those five months you can really take advantage of practicing. It’s really growing.”
So much so that Magnus and his coach, Snorri Olafsson, say golf is the second most-popular sport in the country, behind soccer. Nearly 10 percent of the population of about 330,000 is registered to a golf club – there are about 20 18-hole courses and between 40-50 9-hole courses – and a recent survey said up to 80,000-90,000 people occasionally played the sport.
Iceland has provided one of the feel-good stories in sports in recent years by being the least populous nation to qualify for a European Championship (2016) and then a World Cup (2018) in soccer. The fans’ war-like ”thunderclap” chant became known worldwide.
Magnus’ golfing exploits briefly took the soccer team off the front pages but there’s a link between them, as is often the case in a country where everyone seemingly knows everyone: His former golf coach was the brother of the country’s most famous soccer player, Gylfi Sigurdsson.
So what can we expect from Magnus, who took up golf at the age of 15 after quitting soccer, describes himself as ”a bit of a loner” and says he is ”uncomfortable” with the added exposure of recent weeks?
”Par golf. Steady. Don’t get much reaction from him,” Olafsson said. ”We have all types in Iceland, but he is level-headed. You never know if he is 8 under or 8 over.
”He’s fun to watch and hopefully the putter gets hot.”
Most of all for Magnus, this is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience and he intends to enjoy it. His dream is to play on the European Tour – he has twice tried to qualify for the second-tier Challenge Tour via Q School – and one day the PGA Tour.
So no wonder he was looking forward to playing nine holes with European Ryder Cup players Lee Westwood and Nicolas Colsaerts in practice on Wednesday, before taking what he acknowledges will be a nerve-racking first tee shot on Thursday. He plays the first two rounds alongside Zander Lombard and James Robinson.
”I don’t really care that I’m the first one (from Iceland),” Magnus said. ”I think it’s awesome to be in a major but whether there had been zero, 15 or 100 before me, it doesn’t matter.
”Hopefully this will be an encouragement. We have a lot of good, young kids and I don’t think I’ll be the last one to play a major from Iceland.”
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80