Weekend Interview: Rookie Joe Dean is Open-minded ahead of Royal Birkdale

WHEN the world's best players arrive at Royal Birkdale for the Open Championship over the next few days there will be a moment when each of them is reduced to the level of a club golfer entering the monthly medal.

Hillsboroughs Joe Dean will have girlfriend Emily Lyle, a two-handicap golfer, on his bag when he tees it up at the Open at Royal Birkdale next week (Picture: Scott Merrylees).

Egalitarianism rules where startsheets for the four official practice days are concerned.

Which is why 23-year-old former Yorkshire county team member Joe Dean will roll up in Lancashire hoping to put his name alongside such as defending champion Henrik Stenson, past holder Rory McIlroy or 2015 double major winner Jordan Spieth.

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Hillsborough’s Dean, whose name is engraved on the English men’s amateur trophy after those of six-time major champion Nick Faldo and 2016 Masters winner Danny Willett, will be playing his first Open after tieing for top place in Final Qualifying at Notts (Hollinwell) earlier this month.

Joe Dean with the English men's amateur championship trophy after his win at Alwoodley in 2015 (Picture: Chris Stratford).

But dismiss the notion that he is hoping to tee it up alongside Stenson, McIlroy or Spieth in the role of awestruck fan looking to make the most of the week’s experiences.

He wants to play alongside them to gauge exactly what he is up against over, hopefully, four days of competition with the long-term view of learning what is needed to one day, he hopes, stand alongside them as their peer.

“I would love to have a game with Stenson, McIlroy, Spieth –one of the big names,” says Dean.

“I will see if there is any space next to their names in practice.

Joe Dean with the English men's amateur championship trophy after his win at Alwoodley in 2015 (Picture: Chris Stratford).

“At the end of the day they are the competition so you want to know what they are bringing to the table.”

It is an admirable and sensible attitude and one that should serve Dean well as he looks to move his way up from his current position as a player on the EuroPro Tour – the third tier of tournament golf in this continent – to that of competing at the top table, the European Tour.

He has already played in one event at the highest level, back in 2012 when his reward as an 18-year-old for winning the Dutch Youth Masters was a place in the KLM Open.

It was in Holland that his belief that he might one day be good enough to play golf for a living gained added momentum.

“I went there thinking these players were like gods and a league above everyone else, but I was watching them on the range and I was shocked,” he recalls.

“There was only Stenson who I would stand there and watch.

“I do not want to say everyone else was not very good because obviously they are playing on the European Tour for a reason, but where the range is concerned I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to stand there and watch the others.”

Ability will take you only so far in the world of professional sport – mental strength is what ultimately separates the also-rans from the title winners. Two years ago at Alwoodley, Dean underscored the point when he won the English men’s amateur crown with an emphatic 9&7 victory over Sundridge Park’s Alfie Plant in the 36-hole final. This despite struggling with his game in both qualifying and the early match play stages.

After adding England representation in the Home Internationals to his CV, he turned professional last year and five top-five finishes secured his EuroPro Tour card for 2017.

His acquisition of world ranking points via his tour performances also saw him exempt through to Final Qualifying for the Open, and having been ushered metaphorically to the front door of the Royal Birkdale locker room, he kicked it open by shooting 70 64 to win his place in the third major of the year.

His girlfriend Emily Lyle, a two-handicapper, caddies for him and he says as the putts started to drop in his second round at Notts so her plans for the week at Birkdale started to solidify.

“I birdied the first and the fourth, had a good up-and-down save at the fifth and then at the sixth, a par-5, I hit a five iron to about a foot and made eagle,” recalls Dean.

“I started to wonder whether this [qualifying for the Open] could eventually happen, but Emily was already planning out what we were going to do at the Open.

“At the next hole I hit a pitching wedge onto the left fringe and the pin was at the other side of the green – but I knocked the putt in.

“The hole after that I pulled a wedge shot again from about 140 yards and left myself a 50ft putt – and I rolled that one in as well.

“That put me in the lead and I thought, ‘this is getting real now’.”

He concedes that the prospect of winning a place in the Open led to a short spell of nervousness, but he made a withdrawal on the experiences he had banked on the occasions when he has contended for victory on the EuroPro Tour.

“The last few times when I have been in contention in the EuroPro events my nerves have got the better of me,” he says, “but although there were a few scoreboards out there [at Notts] there were not enough to keep track of everyone, so in one way it was nice not knowing so I could just focus on what I was doing myself.”

Focusing on himself has been a luxury not afforded him in the past week as he has attempted to get tickets for all those wanting to support him while looking to gain sponsorship, with pension advisers City Lipp coming on board.

He did find time to see Sheffield physiotherapist Liz Yorke, of City Physio, who helped him overcome a back injury sustained when overexerting himself in the gym as a callow teenager and has continued treatment to ensure that his back stands up to the rigours of tournament golf.

Girlfriend Lyle, meanwhile, will continue to take the strain of carrying his golf bag with Dean dismissing those who, in ignorance, suggested he should employ a ‘proper’ caddie for Birkdale.

“As far as I am concerned you could have the best caddie in the world giving you the best information, but if you cannot hit the ball in the required spot it wouldn’t count for anything,” says Dean.

“I have spoken to [coach] Graham [Walker] about it and he said the best caddie he ever had was his wife, and at the end of the day, if I feel more comfortable with Emily on the bag then I’m going to have Emily on the bag, it is as simple as that.”

Dean will walk the course tomorrow, and possibly play nine holes, before practising with full rounds on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

With father Bob and mother Pauline in attendance come Thursday, his first target will be to make the 36-hole cut and then to feature, if possible, on the leader board.

“Justin Rose did it when he was an amateur in 1998 at Birkdale, so why not?” says Dean.