Wale of a time: Hoover’s Neil Thompson fulfills dream of playing first Senior Open with family by his side

Published 5:57 pm Wednesday, August 16, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

BRIDGEND, Wales ­– For some of the top golfers at The Senior Open Championship like Steve Stricker and Vijay Singh, they would have been devastated to walk off of the 18th green on Friday, July 28 having missed the cut.

For Neil Thompson, he was just relieved he didn’t have to find a babysitter for the weekend.

The 53-year old Hoover resident qualified for his first Senior Open at Royal Porthcawl Golf Club in Bridgend, Wales to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing in the British Open, and he did so with his parents and family by his side just two and a half hours from his childhood home of Dorset, England.

“That was a special thing for me,” Thompson said. “I hope it was special for them. It was definitely special for me to have everyone there. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach a pinnacle like that in my golf career again from a personal level.”

Thompson previously competed in the Senior PGA Championship in 2021 and 2023, where he made the weekend cut and finished 78th at Tulsa’s Southern Hills in 2021 and missed the cut in May at Field Ranch in Frisco.

Thompson had rarely considered trying to qualify for the Open because of the logistical challenges involved. He runs the Thompson Golf Academy out of Timberline Golf Club in Calera, and is typically so busy giving lessons and leading camps that he rarely finds time to golf for himself. He and his wife also have three children who are age 10 or younger, which complicates any travel.

He attempted to qualify for the Senior Open in 2021 when the R&A, the organization which runs the British Open, ran a special qualifier at Firestone Country Club in Ohio due to ongoing COVID-19 travel restrictions in the U.K. He finished tied-for-36th and did not make the tournament, and he did not try to qualify in 2022 since the Open was in Scotland and it wouldn’t have worked logistically.

However, when he realized this year’s Senior Open was at Royal Portcawl, he started to think this could be his year.

“This time, when I saw the tournament was being played in South Wales, that’s only two and a half hours from my parents,” Thompson said. “I’m also working all summer camps and various lessons through the year. This is the time of the year that I would go back to visit my parents.”

In addition, he saw that the qualifiers would just be a single round at Royal Portcawl on Monday, July 24, just a few days before The Senior Open would start on that Thursday. That was much different from the eight-month qualifying process it took to make the Senior PGA.

With that in mind, he started asking himself, “what did he have to lose?”

“It makes it very conducive for somebody to go over and try to qualify and if you don’t make it, you get a holiday out of it,” Thompson said. “For me, it was like, well, I flew over, spent a couple of days with my parents and my plan was just to go up to Wales, have a round of golf, and come back.

“I mean, I didn’t think I was going to make it. I wanted to make it. But I was also realistic. I played two rounds of golf since I played in Frisco. I’ve been working all through the summer, junior camps, it’s just been busy for lessons.”

Thompson decided to give it a go, and he flew with his wife, three kids and brother Ian, who serves as his caddie and is a former head coach for Samford’s women’s golf team, back to his parents’ house in Dorset.

Even though he battled through 20-mph wind and rain during his early morning tee time, he strung together a series of pars and ended the round with a birdie on the 18th hole to finish at 1-under-par 69.

That gave him the clubhouse lead, but he had to sweat out the results for seven hours after he finished. To add to everything, the wind dropped significantly as the day went on, and the R&A hadn’t announced how many spots were up for grabs in qualifying.

“By that time, that 20-mph wind got down to about a six-mph wind,” Thompson said. “I’m like, ‘well, there’s bound to be some good scores.’ And, the people said, ‘no, no, you’re probably going to make it.’”

That’s because historically, an under-par score is good enough to qualify. That held true this year, as Thompson was one of just two players to shoot under-par in qualifying, and he earned a spot in that weekend’s Senior Open.

He was excited to earn a spot, but he had other things on his mind.

“I was really pleased, but I’d only packed two pairs of trousers,” Thompson said.

So yes, he and Ian went home to get some pants, but to also start planning for how the rest of their family could come and watch.

He played two practice rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday, and his wife caddied for him for the first one so they got to enjoy the course by themselves. His early morning tee time on Thursday was going to be difficult to get the rest of the family to come, but he had an afternoon tee time on Friday that worked perfectly.

He arranged everything for his parents and kids to come on Friday, even getting mobility scooters for his parents since his mother had a stroke and would have had a hard time walking the course.

Now, the only challenge was convincing them to come.

“I told them, ‘who knows if I’m ever going to play in this again?,’” Thompson said. “‘But the fact that everything’s sorted, you better not let me down. You better show up and be there.’

“And they were, and they enjoyed the experience. So that was the special thing.”

Thompson shot a 78 in the first round and a 76 in the second round to finish at 12-over-par. He missed the cut, but he had a better reward waiting for him on the 18th green: his parents, along with his wife and children.

“Making the cut or not making the cut, to be quite frank, was fairly irrelevant in the whole scheme of things, because all it would have done was it would have been nice, you earn some money and what have you,” Thompson said. “But it wasn’t part of that. The reason was I just had this picture or image in my brain of my parents being there, particularly my mom being there to experience it, because who knows if it will ever happen again?”

What made it even more special was that it had been years since his parents had seen him play golf. His family didn’t make it to either the 2021 or 2023 Senior PGA Championship, but now, they could see him fulfill his dreams.

“That was in a way the whole reason I entered the competition in the first place, because they haven’t seen me hit a shot in probably ten years,” Thompson said. “They can see certain things in photographs, but there’s nothing like seeing it through their own eyes.”

Even though making the cut and having a chance to win on the weekend would have been incredible, Thompson was mainly focused on his family and making sure they had a great time rather than just being dragged along while he chased his golf dreams. He knew that making the cut would only take more time away from spending time with them.

“The reality, had I made the cut, it would just derailed the holiday even further because we’re flying back on Wednesday, so it would have been about two days at home and it would have been a pretty selfish holiday,” Thompson said. “So, in the end, it allowed us to have two more days of things for the kids to do and various other things rather than if they had a babysitter.”

In the end, Thompson got to fulfill a lifelong dream. He grew up in England, and for young English golfers, the two tournaments that they dreamed of competing in were the Ryder Cup and the British Open. They were the tournaments that they visualized playing in when they played golf growing up, much like The Masters in America.

He accomplished the latter, and as a result, he believes he will look back at it as one of the greatest moments of his life. He feels grateful to have earned a chance to live out his dream.

“There’s not many people that have the chance to do what they want in life and then achieve it,” Thompson said. “And it’s almost like, in a way, that was, for me, that week, which was pretty nice.”