The Open 2017: Joe Dean takes short route to top of a leader board at Birkdale

Hillsborough's Joe Dean tees off at the fifth hole during the final round of the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale (Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire).
Hillsborough's Joe Dean tees off at the fifth hole during the final round of the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale (Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire).
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HILLSBOROUGH’S Joe Dean finished a draining Open Championship debut sitting top of the leader board – for Royal Birkdale’s par-3s.

It is one of many positives the former English men’s amateur champion can take from making the cut at the event after claiming a starting spot by finishing in equal first place in Final Qualifying at Notts (Hollinwell) earlier this month.

Dean finished four under at Birkdale’s short holes, and also at the par-5s, but unfortunately was at the opposite end of the scale for the par-4s, at which he was 15 over and ranked last.

It made for a seven-over-par aggregate after rounds of 72 72 70 73 on a course that he rates among the toughest he has encountered.

“It’s definitely in the top three most difficult courses I’ve played,” said the former Yorkshire county team member.

“Lytham, as an amateur, was by far the hardest I’ve had to play in my life. Even in flat calm, it’s ridiculous that place. It’s a great test of golf, but I really don’t like it. Carnoustie is probably as tough as Birkdale. I’d put them tied second.

“People probably don’t understand how difficult Birkdale is. I class myself as an alright golfer; for Jordan Spieth to shoot an average of three under par each round there, whether the sun’s shining or it’s hammering it down, it’s unbelievable golf.”

His assessment of Birkdale puts into context his achievement of making it through to the weekend, and he is rightly proud of the way he avoided a halfway exit by shooting a two-over-par 72 in Friday’s horrendous conditions.

“To make the cut in that awful weather on Friday was some of the best grinding out golf I’ve ever played, so that was great,” said Dean.

“But I do think I became mentally fatigued just because of how tough it was on Friday and that didn’t really help (at the weekend).

“But at the end of the day it’s the Open Championship and it’s supposed to test every area including the mental side.”

He felt a lack of experience with 72-hole tournaments worked against him and said, with hindsight, he would have foregone some practice holes at Birkdale in the days leading up to the event in favour of working on the range.

The EuroPro Tour player has pulled out of this week’s event in Luton because of fatigue and an “iffy” shoulder. But he drove straight to London from Birkdale last night to honour his commitment to the Tesco Charity Pro-Am Classic at the RAC Club, Epsom.

Three-time European Tour winner Matt Fitzpatrick, from Sheffield, tied 44th at Birkdale with scores of 69 73 68 73.

He commented on Twitter: “Rubbish today...just a bad day at the office. Thank you @TheOpen for an amazing week as always!”

Meanwhile, former Masters champion, Danny Willett “can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel” despite playing all four rounds at Birkdale.

The 29-year-old, also from Sheffield, who in April became the first reigning champion at Augusta to miss the cut since Mike Weir in 2004, has struggled with a back injury that has severely hampered his form.

He carded a final-round 71 to finish nine over par, but even though he managed to play a full tournament for only the second time since the WGC-Mexico Championship on March 5, there were few positives for him.

“It is still painful. You obviously know what you can do and what you can achieve when you are fully fit and swinging well,” he said. “When you are not fully fit and swinging well, you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Willett was first man out yesterday and played with a marker, Birkdale assistant professional Nick Jennings.

“When the swing is a bit dodgy the back starts to hurt and you make compensations; it’s just a bit of a vicious cycle,” he added.

Asked how far he thought he was from regaining some form, he added: “F****** miles, a long way away.

“Golf shots are a long way away. Mental is a long way away. Scoring is a long way away.

“Golfing-wise it is obviously not quite there and feelings are changing day-to-day with what I am trying to do.”